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Antitrust inquiries into U.S. tech giants could upend the development of artificial intelligence.

Last week, lawmakers interrogated the CEOs of Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook about whether their companies have become too powerful. House members drilled in on Big Tech’s acquisitions (they allegedly stifle innovation) and their collection of huge amounts of data (it gives the companies a huge advantage over rivals in developing A.I. and improving their products).

But even if lawmakers agree Big Tech is too big, they are in a quandary about what to do about it. Should they break the companies up? Fine them? Do nothing?

As antitrust expert Dakota Foster recently explained in a paper for Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, what Congress decides could be critical to the federal government. Research and technology from major tech companies both directly and indirectly benefits the Pentagon. Tech giants often open source their A.I. research, which means that the federal government can use the findings for free. The companies also sell cloud computing and A.I. services to government agencies. 

By taking action, lawmakers risk hurting the ability of tech companies to develop A.I., Foster warned Fortune. They may end up cutting spending into A.I. research, and thereby achieve fewer technological breakthroughs.

In the past, the government would have been easily able to dump Big Tech in favor of contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, Foster explained. But in recent years, the tech giants have leapfrogged the defense industry’s A.I. skills, she said.

Members from both political parties are concerned that slowing progress by Big Tech in A.I. may benefit China. That country is investing heavily in A.I., with the goal of becoming the world’s leader 2030.

Whatever the case, the federal government shifting to using smaller U.S. tech companies as an alternative to Big Tech isn’t particularly realistic. The data used by the upstarts for A.I. projects isn’t as complete as what the tech giants have. Furthermore, the small fry lack the money to pay for the tremendous amount of computing power required for A.I. projects. At the same time, they face a tougher time attracting the necessary talent, she explained.

Still, smaller businesses could get some lift if Big Tech had its wings clipped. As Foster said, “there’s definitely an argument to be made” that the mere presence of Big Tech is curtailing innovation by smaller companies.

“If Facebook was founded today would it become the Facebook we now know?” Foster asked. “Some people say it’s just not possible given the [tech giants’] presence.”

Jonathan Vanian 

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