Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the commission’s chief sponsors, put the new vision succinctly in a December 2019 speech. He said it was time to recognize “the perils of free-market fundamentalism” in dealing with China and instead embrace “a 21st-century pro-American industrial policy.” That revisionist thinking now animates the Biden administration, senior members of Congress and some leading technology executives.
Like some other big paradigm shifts, this one has become obvious only as it began to displace the old laissez-faire approach to China. Behind the scenes, there’s broad congressional support for the activist stance in both parties: Nineteen of the commission’s recommendations were quietly inserted in the defense authorization act passed in January, including what could be billions of dollars in spending for new semiconductor fabrication plants in the United States.
The changes that artificial intelligence will bring to everything that touches digital technology dazzle even the most buttoned-down experts in the field. That’s why members of the commission and others close to this issue are so agitated about the need for radically increased U.S. efforts: They literally think our future is at stake, militarily, economically and even politically.
What’s driving the move toward government-directed investment in technology is a fear that China’s so-called civil-military fusion will overwhelm American effort, unless it’s matched. Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive who chaired the commission, argued in congressional testimony last month that “the threat of Chinese leadership in key technology areas is a national crisis.” Instead of leaving solutions to private companies, he urged, “we will need a hybrid approach that more tightly aligns government and private-sector efforts to win.”
The commission’s recommendations are important because the panel included many tech luminaries, such as Safra Catz, chief executive of Oracle; Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer of Microsoft; Andy Jassy, the visionary director of Amazon Web Services who will become Amazon’s chief executive this year; and Andrew Moore, head of Google’s Cloud Artificial Intelligence unit. The report recommended that, by 2026, nationally funded AI research and development spending should total $32 billion.
The government’s role in funding breakthrough technologies has been obvious in the past. The most obvious example is the Manhattan Project’s development of nuclear weapons. Government money also drove the space program, developed the Internet and built the infrastructure for national and global commerce. Government intervention became anathema during the tech and financial booms of recent decades, but the pendulum seems to have swung.
The scale of the proposed mobilization isn’t another Manhattan Project, but it’s similar. The commission recommends a new technology competitiveness council chaired by the vice president; a steering committee on emerging technology to drive change at the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies; and major changes in immigration and education policies to address what the commission calls “an alarming talent deficit” with China.
The Biden administration embraces the thrust of the commission’s report but disagrees on some details. The White House would prefer to channel the new initiatives through the existing interagency structure of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, rather than create an additional council. But the administration supports many specific policy recommendations in the commission’s 756-page report.
“This is the kind of bipartisan support we hope can drive new investment” in AI and other emerging technologies, said a senior administration official. One sign of White House alignment is that Jason Matheny, a member of the 15-person panel, is expected to be appointed deputy director of Biden’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The Biden administration also shares the commission’s enthusiasm for what the report calls “a coalition of like-minded” nations to advance the development and use of AI and emerging technologies “that comports with democratic values.” But because some European and Asian allies have recently expressed anxiety about joining an explicit alliance of “techno-democracies” against China, this coalition is likely to operate through existing structures, such as the Group of Seven; the “Quad” security partnership of India, Japan, Australia and the United States; and bilateral relations with the European Union and its member countries.
The trick will be keeping the U.S. economy open enough that it continues to draw the world’s most talented people, even as officials move to protect America’s lead in key technologies.
The industrial policy the AI commission recommends could unlock talent and innovation. But if officials aren’t careful, government intervention could also afflict our best companies with the dead weight and dysfunction of our broken political system. We need government to spawn brainpower, not bureaucracy.