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International relations

US Senate passes $250bn China competition bill

Whoever harnesses AI and quantum computing will own the future, Schumer warns

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talks with reporters on Capitol Hill on June 8.   © AP

NEW YORK -- The U.S. Senate passed comprehensive legislation Tuesday with provisions for $250 billion in R&D-related and other spending, aiming to take on China as the two countries compete for technological leadership.

The United States Innovation and Competition Act, incorporating the earlier Endless Frontier Act, passed by a 68-32 vote. Over five years, it appropriates $52 billion in emergency funding for the semiconductor sector and authorizes $81 billion in spending by the National Science Foundation.

"When all is said and done, the bill will go down as one of the most important things this chamber has done in a very long time -- a statement of faith in America's ability to seize the opportunities of the 21st century," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who had introduced the Endless Frontier Act with Republican Sen. Todd Young, said Tuesday ahead of the vote.

"The ambitions of this legislation are large, but the premise is simple," Schumer said. "If we want American workers and American companies to keep leading the world, the federal government must invest in science, basic research and innovation, just as we did decades after the Second World War."

Despite being bipartisan legislation that Schumer had pushed to pass quickly, he said it had gone through three months of negotiations and six Senate committees, with 20-plus amendments considered from both sides of the aisle, before it could head to the Senate floor for a final vote.

Ambitious spending plans were scaled back in the process. The originally proposed $100 billion authorized for a new directorate at the NSF will now be just $29 billion over the five-year period.

Schumer's camp has underscored the importance of federal investment in basic research that can be translated into practical use to keep up with Beijing's aggressive R&D spending.

"Whoever harnesses the technologies like AI and quantum computing and innovations yet unseen will shape the world in their image," he said. "Do we want that image to be a democratic image ... or do we want it to be an authoritarian image, like President Xi [Jinping] would like to impose on the world?"

In a March report, the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recommended $40 billion in funding "to expand and democratize" federal AI research and development, calling the sum "a modest down payment on future breakthroughs."

"China's plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans," the report said, later warning that "China possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world's leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change."

If a similar competitiveness measure passes in the House, any differences between the two chambers' versions will need to be ironed out before the final product is signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration has publicly backed the Endless Frontier Act's introduction.

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