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Opinion China's application of AI should be a Sputnik moment for the U.S. But will it be?

An AI robot developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is on display at a trade show in Chiba, Japan, last month.
An AI robot developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is on display at a trade show in Chiba, Japan, last month. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg News)

A conference here to gather American business and military experts to discuss the coming revolution in artificial intelligence was a good Election Day measure of the challenges ahead to maintain the U.S. competitive edge.

Corporate and government leaders agree that China’s rapid application of AI to business and military problems should be a “Sputnik moment” to propel change in America. As a top-down command economy, China is directing money and its best brains to develop the smart systems that will operate cars, planes, offices and information — along with the transformation of warfare.

The United States is struggling to respond to this world-changing challenge. What’s underway is frail and exists mostly on paper. Congress this year passed legislation calling for a national AI commission, but so far it’s just a concept. The Pentagon in June established a new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center that will spend $1.75 billion over six years, but critics fear it will be far short of what’s needed.

“There is no quarterback” for AI, says Amy Webb, author of a forthcoming book called “The Big Nine ” about the top U.S. and Chinese AI companies. The United States started with a technology lead, but U.S. efforts are dispersed and decentralized. Companies have trouble sharing the structured data that machines can learn on.

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“China is the OPEC of data,” argues Webb. In a totalitarian society, every human and social interaction feeds a vast pool of structured data for machines to ingest. The Chinese government can then commandeer companies and people, as needed.

America may need an “AI czar,” argues Ashton B. Carter, former secretary of defense for President Barack Obama. That’s because no current agency or White House office is empowered to coordinate an effort as complicated as the Manhattan Project, which built a nuclear weapon, or the “space race” that put a man on the moon. But mobilizing resources in this way requires political vision and leadership, which are lacking today in both parties.

“China has a national strategy and is executing it. That’s what’s missing. There is no compelling overarching policy,” argues Paul Scharre, who studies AI at the Center for a New American Security. “It has to be a national effort, especially in terms of talent management,” agrees Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Work argues that a good start would be an AI “training corps,” a bit like the National Guard. The Pentagon would pay for advanced technical education in exchange for two days a month of training with government systems and two weeks a year for major exercises. Members of the corps could keep their regular jobs at Microsoft or Google, say, but might be called up in a national emergency.

An awkward problem for America now is that the employees of the biggest and best AI companies seem reluctant to work with the U.S. government. After the Edward Snowden revelations, tech companies and their employees got nervous about appearing too cooperative with government intelligence programs. For example, when Google this year agreed to help the Pentagon develop battlefield algorithms in “Project Maven,” so many employees signed protest petitions that the company had to back out.

Microsoft bravely announced last month that it would sell advanced technologies needed “to build a strong defense” to military and intelligence agencies. But there’s still a culture clash between Silicon Valley software engineers, many of whom see themselves as libertarian members of a global community, and defense planners, whose overriding priority is to build systems that assure American dominance in any future conflict.

We can see all our national strengths and weaknesses in the AI debate: a smart, dynamic private sector (on display here at the “Time Machine 2018” conference, sponsored by SparkCognition) but weak public leadership; proud military services that unfortunately are tied to legacy weapons systems such as manned fighter jets and giant aircraft carriers; a public education system that doesn’t prepare students well for the tech jobs that matter; a broken immigration policy that doesn’t serve our economic needs.

After the midterm elections, the country will begin a heated debate about the best candidate to lead the nation in the 2020 elections. One way to assess potential leaders is to ask how they would meet the AI challenge of refashioning our economic and strategic foundations. A bitterly divided country with a dysfunctional political system isn’t going to win the race anywhere, except down.

Ask yourself who could lead a national push to capture the high ground of technology, and you may come up with the name of the man or woman who should be our next president.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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