Poll: most Americans want safe AI rather than winning the race with China

The tech industry has repeatedly claimed that AI regulation might hurt American efforts to compete with China. But a new poll has shown that US voters don’t actually want to be part of that particular race.

The poll, carried out in late June by the AI Policy Institute (AIPI), a nonprofit advocating for more cautious AI development, and shared first with TIME magazine, revealed that a large majority of US voters are skeptical of claims that the AI train should not be constrained by domestic regulations because they would hurt American efforts to compete with China.

Indeed, China now spearheads AI innovation. Most of the GenAI patents now come from China – the country’s institutions have registered around 38,000 of them in less than a decade. The US, despite leading all the fuss in the Western media, is far behind with nearly 6,300 patents.

The tech industry, as eager as ever to do whatever it wants, uses this as an argument for less regulation. CEOs and lobbyists have argued that too many domestic constraints only give China an advantage.

However, it seems that most Americans disagree with this narrative – or even if they do, they think some things are more important. In this case, these are regulatory limits in AI development.

According to the poll, 75% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans believe that “taking a careful controlled approach” to AI – by preventing the release of tools that terrorists and foreign adversaries could use against the US – is preferable to “moving forward on AI as fast as possible to be the first country to get extremely powerful AI.”

50% of the respondents said the US should attempt to enforce “safety restrictions and aggressive testing requirements.” Only 23% believe that America should simply try to build powerful AI as fast as possible to outpace China.

What I perceive from the polling is that stopping AI development is not seen as an option,” Daniel Colson, the executive director of the AIPI, told TIME.

“But giving industry free rein is also seen as risky. And so there’s the desire for some third way. And when we present that in the polling – that third path, mitigated AI development with guardrails – is the one that people overwhelmingly want.”

The poll indeed reveals a wish for some sort of balance. For example, 63% of American voters said it should be illegal to export powerful AI models to potential US adversaries like China, and only 14% of respondents disagreed.

There is no comprehensive AI regulation in the US, although individual states such as California have been moving forward with policy initiatives – much to the chagrin of tech executives.

According to Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, American policymakers “have failed to step up to the challenge” of rapid AI development.

"When we look at AI, we've got to recognize that all of the things that have happened in the last 12 months that have our heads spinning are probably the least amount of change that we will see in our lifetimes,” Wheeler told Yahoo Finance.

“And so the question becomes, how do we deal with that? How do we transform from an industrial economy that was overseen by industrial-era style regulation to a digital economy to an AI economy that has oversight to protect the public interest?”