A bipartisan government commission on artificial intelligence (AI) recommends changing U.S. immigration laws to allow America to attract and retain talent to compete in AI and other cutting-edge technologies. The commission’s report, which is likely to be influential, concludes that preventing Chinese nationals from studying or working in AI, as some anti-immigration and anti-China legislators have proposed, would benefit the Chinese Communist Party and hurt the United States.
This week, after two years of research, hearings and investigations, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence released its Final Report. Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google and cofounder of Schmidt Futures, chaired the commission. Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense, served as vice chair.
“As a bipartisan commission of 15 technologists, national security professionals, business executives, and academic leaders, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) is delivering an uncomfortable message: America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era,” write Schmidt and Work in the report’s opening. “This is the tough reality we must face. And it is this reality that demands comprehensive, whole-of-nation action. Our final report presents a strategy to defend against AI threats, responsibly employ AI for national security, and win the broader technology competition for the sake of our prosperity, security and welfare.”
Improving U.S. immigration policy plays a significant role in the report’s recommendations: “As a starting point, the strategy should build on the following pillars: 1) winning the AI talent competition; 2) promoting American AI innovation; 3) protecting U.S. AI advantages; and 4) leading a favorable international AI order.”
“[T]he United States needs to win the international talent competition by improving both STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education and our system for admitting and retaining highly skilled immigrants,” write Schmidt and Work.
Currently, H-1B visa fees paid by employers have funded approximately 100,000 college scholarships for U.S. students in science and engineering, according to a National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis. However, the annual number of H-1B visas, typically the only practical way for a high-skilled foreign national to work long-term in the United States, has been exhausted every year since 2004.
In a summary of “Win the global talent competition,” the report states: “The United States risks losing the global competition for scarce AI expertise if it does not cultivate more potential talent at home and recruit and retain more existing talent from abroad. The United States must move aggressively on both fronts. Congress should pass a National Defense Education Act II to address deficiencies across the American educational system—from K-12 and job reskilling to investing in thousands of undergraduate- and graduate-level fellowships in fields critical to the AI future. At the same time, Congress should pursue a comprehensive immigration strategy for highly skilled immigrants to encourage more AI talent to study, work, and remain in the United States through new incentives and visa, green card, and job-portability reforms.” (Emphasis added.)
In a section titled “Strengthen AI talent through immigration,” the report concludes: “Immigration reform is a national security imperative. Nations that can successfully attract and retain highly skilled individuals gain strategic and economic advantages over competitors. Human capital advantages are particularly significant in the field of AI, where demand for talent far exceeds supply. Highly skilled immigrants accelerate American innovation, improve entrepreneurship and create jobs.”
While the Trump administration treated foreign-born professionals as a threat, enacting numerous obstacles and even bans on their entry into America, the report states, “The United States benefits far more from the immigration of highly skilled foreign workers than other countries.” According to the report, “In 2013, the United States had 15 times as many immigrant inventors as there were American inventors living abroad. By contrast, Canada, Germany, and the U.K. all maintain a net negative inventor immigration rate. Compared with other U.S. advantages in the AI competition—such as financial resources or hardware capacity—this immigration advantage is harder for other countries to replicate.”
The report identifies several problems with the current U.S. immigration system, including international students becoming more likely to study in other countries and the long waits for employment-based immigrants for green cards, which are in some ways connected. As this recent article explains: “Without a change in immigration law, it will be sometime in the year 2216—195 years from now—when the last person born in India waiting today in the employment-based immigrant backlog is expected to receive a green card.”
Among the immigration policies the commission recommends:
– “Expand and clarify job portability for highly skilled workers.” The concept is contained in the recently introduced U.S. Citizenship Act, which was developed by the Biden administration. The commission believes the current one-year extension for many H-1B visa holders waiting for employment-based green cards should be expanded to make it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers in H-1B, O-1 or other statuses to change jobs more easily and have more flexibility in the labor market.
– “Recapture green cards lost to bureaucratic error.” This measure is also in the U.S. Citizenship Act.
– “Grant green cards to students graduating with STEM PhDs from accredited American universities.” The U.S. Citizenship Act contains this measure. NFAP estimates it would result in about 10,000 green cards a year.
– “Double the number of employment-based green cards.” The U.S. Citizenship Act potentially more than doubles the number of employment-based immigrant visas by no longer counting dependents toward the annual limit and allowing unused green cards to be used from the family preference categories—after providing family categories a higher annual limit unlikely to be fully used after five years.
– “Create an entrepreneur visa.” The United States lacks a startup visa and it places America at a disadvantage compared to other nations in retaining or attracting foreign-born entrepreneurs.
– “Create an emerging and disruptive technology visa.” The commission recommends the National Science Foundation “identify critical emerging technologies every three years. DHS would then allow students, researchers, entrepreneurs, and technologists in applicable fields to apply for emerging and disruptive technology visas. This would provide much-needed talent R&D [research and development] and strengthen our economy.”
The Commission soundly rejected an approach favored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to prevent Chinese-born researchers from studying in science and technology fields in the United States, arguing such a policy would be a huge benefit to the Chinese Communist Party.
“Immigration policy can also slow China’s progress,” according to the report. “China’s government takes the threat of brain drain seriously, noting that the United States’ ability to attract and retain China’s talent is an obstacle to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions. Increasing China’s brain drain will create a dilemma for the CCP—which will be forced to choose between losing even more human capital, further slowing their economic growth and threatening their advancement in AI, or denying Chinese nationals opportunities to study and work in the United States.”
In a hearing, Eric Schmidt noted many promising researchers in AI in the United States were born in China. “We looked at the question of how important are Chinese researchers for the AI effort, in our report, and it turns out the Chinese researchers are the number one authors on the key papers,” said Schmidt at a recent Congressional hearing. “If you were to get rid of all of them . . . you will, in fact, hurt America’s AI leadership.” In a report, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology also pointed out the importance of Chinese-born researchers in American AI.
If Sen. Chuck Schumer follows through on a bill directed at China to increase U.S. efforts in technology, as reported by Reuters, it is reasonable to expect amendments from Sen. Cotton or others to restrict international students from China. It appears Sen. Cotton’s definition of “sensitive” fields includes anything in STEM an international student would be interested in studying in America, arguing the U.S. could “continue to permit Chinese nationals to study non-STEM subjects, such as the humanities.”
The commission addresses technology transfer concerns but warns restrictions on immigration or international students are the wrong approach and would be counterproductive. “While immigration benefits the United States, policymakers must also bear in mind the threat of unwanted technology transfer,” according to the report. “However, restricting immigration is far too blunt a tool to solve this problem. Restrictions harm U.S. innovation and economic growth and only help our competitors by enabling their human capital to grow. They also incentivize U.S. technology companies to move to where talent resides, whether right across our borders or overseas. Technology transfer will only get worse if significant components of the U.S. technology sector move their research and development to China or other countries that are more vulnerable than the United States to technology transfer efforts. A more effective strategic approach would pair actions to improve the United States’ ability to attract top global talent with targeted efforts to combat technology transfer vectors.”
Policy choices made today will reverberate in the coming years. “The leading indexes that measure progress in AI development generally place the United States ahead of China,” according to the commission. “However, the gap is closing quickly. China stands a reasonable chance of overtaking the United States as the leading center of AI innovation in the coming decade.”
America’s leading thinkers on technology, innovation and national security have told policymakers in a final report on AI that making U.S. policies more open to high-skilled immigrants and international students is essential to the nation’s future. Will Congress listen?