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Killer AI is a patriotic duty? Silicon Valley comes to Washington

Killer AI is a patriotic duty? Silicon Valley comes to Washington

Wednesday’s conference showed the increasing power defense tech startups wield in the Beltway

Reporting | QiOSK

It’s only been six years since thousands of Google employees forced their employer to pull out of an AI contract with the U.S. military. At the time, it seemed like a watershed moment: Despite long historical links to the Pentagon, Silicon Valley appeared poised to shake off its ties with the world’s most powerful military.

But a lot can change in half a decade, as Palantir CEO Alex Karp gleefully reminded his audience in the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. “I historically would have been one that would rage against Silicon Valley venture [capitalists],” Karp said, joking that he used to have “all sorts of fantasies of using drone-enabled technology to exact revenge.”

Now, patriotic investors and officials are “coming together around some obvious truths,” he argued. In Karp’s telling, these principles include a realization that Western values must be protected against burgeoning threats from America’s adversaries in China and Russia as well as the dangerous “pagan” forces behind pro-Palestinian protests.

Karp’s free-wheeling presentation was the most entertaining of Wednesday’s Hill and Valley Forum, a four-hour-long event featuring a who’s-who of the growing defense tech ecosystem. But, rhetorical flourishes aside, the series of talks gave a unique window into the increasingly porous border between Silicon Valley’s most hawkish entrepreneurs and their ideological allies in Washington.

Above all, the two groups came together around their shared hatred for the Chinese Communist Party and its various nefarious doings. Panelists called for everything from slashing regulation of the weapons industry to fielding fully autonomous weapons, lest our enemies get a chance to do it first.

“Technology is moving extremely quickly, and you have your adversaries that are moving super quickly as well,” remarked Alex Wang of Scale AI. “We’re in a moment where we have to act really quickly.”

The conduit for this growing collaboration is Jacob Helberg, the event’s baby-faced organizer. In recent years, Helberg has shed his more conventional think tank background to become Silicon Valley’s man in Washington. He’s convened countless meetings between policymakers and tech leaders where attendees pitch policies to stick it to China.

Helberg now works both as an adviser to Palantir and a member of a congressional commission on U.S.-China relations. Some say this dual-hatting amounts to a conflict of interests given that he now “stands to benefit from ever-frostier relations between the two countries,” a claim that Helberg strenuously denies.

Some of Helberg’s efforts, like the campaign to ban TikTok, have already paid off. But he has his sights set on something bigger, according to the Washington Post, which reported Wednesday that the young hotshot has already started drafting an executive order for a potential future Trump administration that would strip away President Joe Biden’s AI regulations (limited as they may be).

Helberg’s convening powers were on full display Wednesday: Some of Washington’s most powerful politicians graced the stage, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), as well as Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who holds an important position on the House Appropriations Committee.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — who, you may remember, is currently fighting for his political life — took time out of his schedule to warn the crowd about the threat China poses to our very way of life. “We must make clear that if America and American companies lose, that means China wins,” Johnson said.

Even Donald Trump made an appearance, if only in the form of a brief, pre-recorded statement filmed on what appeared to be the ex-president’s private jet. “Our country’s going through a lot of problems right now, but we’re going to make it bigger, better, and even stronger than before,” Trump said, noting that he’d had a “very productive” meeting about AI with Helberg.

The day’s panels had an odd quality to them, possibly because none of the journalists in attendance were invited to moderate. Instead, the audience was treated to a series of largely unstructured conversations between politicians and the kind of people who can buy an island.

Graham warned the audience that Chinese cars could be little more than “roving spy labs” meant to gather information on American patriots. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) argued that Americans will have to come around to the idea of AI drones that make “life and death decisions” because our enemies will surely do the same.

The growing bonds between Silicon Valley and Washington are “recreating a culture that says it is great to be American,” remarked Josh Wolfe, a VC at Lux Capital, adding that “we do have adversaries with malicious aims” that can only be countered with good old-fashioned American capitalism.

The funhouse mirror aspects of the event, plentiful as they were, are a distraction from the fundamental problem: A growing part of Silicon Valley is ready to unshackle AI from most if not all oversight, and Congress is more than happy to help them.

There is perhaps no greater evidence of this fact than the effusive praise Sen. Booker lavished on his fellow panelists, all of whom lead various AI firms. “Often unsung heroes are those that are the innovators and the scientists and those who are creating systems and opportunities that we now in our generation take for granted,” the lawmaker said. “You three are frontline players in ways that have me humbled and in awe.”

Palantir adviser Jacob Helberg (L) moderates a conversation with Palantir CEO Alex Karp (R) during a forum in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Screengrab via thehillandvalleyforum.com)

Reporting | QiOSK
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