The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Unless America acts now, China could trounce it in artificial intelligence

Statues of artificial intelligence robots stand in Baidu Inc. headquarters in Beijing on March 4.
Statues of artificial intelligence robots stand in Baidu Inc. headquarters in Beijing on March 4. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

“AMERICA,” WRITE the authors of a congressionally commissioned report on national security and artificial intelligence, “is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era.” This dire message comes with similarly alarming specifics: the United States’ armed forces could lose their competitive advantage within 10 years; the U.S. edge in scientific talent threatens to erode imminently; the most sophisticated microchips are produced at a single plant only 110 miles from the United States’ primary foe in the battle for technological supremacy.

China is determined to claim victory in this contest, and its leaders have developed myriad plans across the whole of its society to realize their aim. Meanwhile, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence assesses, the United States hasn’t developed anything of much coherence. The writers call for a Technology Competitiveness Council in the White House to change that from the top down. The task, they anticipate, will take hefty investment in the usual suspects such as software research and development and hardware manufacturing capability: The report makes ambitious recommendations for a $32 billion infusion into research and development as well as $35 billion into microchip fabrication. A challenge is to promote innovation without simply padding private sector profit on the one hand or stifling private sector nimbleness on the other.

Staying ahead will require fresh thinking in areas that are usually granted less attention, too. One of these is talent. The United States does a decent job attracting the best and brightest from abroad, and it even does a decent job keeping them here in the shorter term — but the lack of a meaningful pathway to citizenship renders long-term retention more difficult, and China has also improved its ability to entice and retain talent. The report recommends granting green cards to all STEM PhD graduates; visas for entrepreneurs and researchers in cutting-edge fields should also become more accessible. Then there are the matters of cultivating domestic know-how and plugging the brain drain away from academia and government toward the private sector. The commissioners have a radical suggestion here: a U.S. Digital Service Academy that would prepare students for modern-day civil service.

This idea also bears on the project of integrating existing AI abilities into defense and intelligence agencies that, despite pockets of promise, have proven embarrassingly sclerotic in their operations: using their powerful computers, according to the report, mostly “to create PowerPoint presentations, build spreadsheets, or send emails.” The fight isn’t only about building the best tools the fastest, but also about knowing better how to use them. The Internet has brought with it troves of data that can overwhelm even the most skilled analyst sifting through it. An algorithm, meanwhile, can make easy work of the inundation. Warfare is set to operate at an untold pace and scale, and machines and humans alike must be equipped.

The stakes are high, because the winners will determine the future of tools with immense potential both to help and to hurt. Already, China has given us a glimpse of the techno-authoritarian future: mass surveillance and complete control. There’s a techno-democratic future within reach, too, but only if democracies are prepared to craft it. This one should lead the way.

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