The national media paid scant attention to the release, on March 1, of the final report of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). In high government circles, however, it is receiving close and admiring attention. That’s because the report bolsters a widely held perception among senior policy-makers—Democrats and Republicans alike—that the United States is engaged in a protracted struggle with China for global supremacy and risks losing out to its more tech-savvy adversary. “For the first time since World War II, America’s technological predominance—the backbone of its economic and military power—is under threat,” the report asserts. “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 this country is to avert such a calamity, “the US government must embrace the AI competition and organize to win it.”
For many on Capitol Hill, this is a galvanizing message. Concern over China’s rise is already widespread among members of both parties, as is a sense that the United States is not doing enough to compete with China in the technological realm. And while some might question the need for more ships and planes to confront the Chinese, few debate the need for increased investment in advanced technologies. “We believe we have powerful bipartisan consensus to win the technology competition with our strategic competitors,” said commission vice-chair Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense, when submitting the final report. “The next necessary step is to organize to compete and win that competition.”
Should US policy-makers adopt the commission’s recommendations and organize to “win” the tech competition with China, American society will be profoundly altered. The nation’s top research universities will be converted into outposts of the Department of Defense, and scientists at these and other institutions will be recruited for work on military-related AI projects. Formerly unfettered educational exchanges between US and Chinese educational institutions will be shut down, and corporate connections heavily monitored. Scholars with even the slightest connection to China will be forced out of academia and, if Chinese nationals, driven out of the country. Money that could be spent on medical research or climate change mitigation will instead be devoted to military-oriented tech applications.
Such bold and intrusive measures are needed, the commission argues, because China appears to be sprinting ahead of the United States in mastering the AI revolution. “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans,” the report reads. “It is an AI peer in many areas and an AI leader in some applications. We take seriously China’s ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s AI leader within a decade.”
If all this has a Cold War ring to it, that’s hardly accidental. The authors of the NSCAI report repeatedly employ Cold War shibboleths to reinforce their entreaties, beginning with the all-too-familiar claim of a weapons “gap”—except with China now replacing the USSR as the designated enemy, and AI-enabled devices replacing bombers and missiles. “AI systems will extend the range and reach of adversaries into the United States just as the missile age…brought threats closer to home,” they wrote. And just as the USSR once viewed ballistic missiles as the way to overpower the United States, “China sees AI as the path to offset US conventional military superiority by ‘leapfrogging’ to a new generation of technology.”
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The AI Revolution
Underlying all this is a conviction that technological superiority is essential to world leadership and that artificial intelligence is the most critical technology of all. “AI is the fulcrum of a broader technology competition in the world,” the NSCAI report states. “The successful adoption of AI in adjacent fields and technologies will drive economies, shape societies, and determine which states exert influence and exercise power in the world.”
The commissioners view AI as a “breakthrough” technology that will transform global society as extensively as did the invention of the steam engine and the harnessing of electricity. But whereas those earlier breakthroughs reduced the need for human muscular energy, AI will reduce the need for human mental energy. AI is “the quintessential ‘dual-use’ technology,” the report notes. “The ability of a machine to perceive, evaluate, and act more quickly and accurately than a human represents a competitive advantage in any field—civilian or military.”
This is already evident in the civilian sphere, where AI-enabled devices like smartphones and Amazon’s Alexa are playing an ever-increasing role in daily life. Police and security forces around the world increasingly rely on AI-empowered facial-recognition systems to monitor public spaces and identify suspects for apprehension. Many of these applications have begun to arouse concern from civil society, and the clamor is certain to grow as AI proliferates.
But it is in the military arena that AI poses the greatest challenge to the status quo. As machines are endowed with aspects of intelligence, the tempo of warfare will be vastly accelerated and the role of humans greatly diminished—with profound and frightening consequences. “In the future, warfare will pit algorithm against algorithm,” the report asserts (emphasis added). “The sources of battlefield advantage will shift from traditional factors like force size and levels of armaments, to factors like superior data collection and assimilation, connectivity, computing power, algorithms, and system security.” Humans will still have a role to play in such encounters, but the key players will be intelligent machines.
A world in which machines make decisions over life and death is one that raises moral and ethical concerns for members of the AI commission, as it surely must. A possible response to this dilemma—one advocated by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and several dozen countries—would be to impose an international prohibition on the deployment of AI-enabled weapons systems. However, claiming that China and Russia cannot be trusted to comply with such a pact, the commissioners determined that the United States cannot agree to one. Instead, we must race ahead in the development of autonomous weaponry and other AI-enabled systems, but do so in an “ethical” fashion, ensuring some degree of human control over such devices.
China’s Unfair Advantage—and How to Overcome It
Contending that AI will shape the battlefield of the future and that the Chinese are striving to achieve dominance in military AI, the commission calls for an all-out drive to overtake China in the technology race. If we are to succeed at this, however, we must—or so says the commission—overcome a major US disadvantage as compared to China: Whereas America’s principal engines of tech innovation are privately owned and largely devoted to private gain, China’s top tech firms—even those in private hands—are beholden to the central government and so must do its bidding. Although Silicon Valley firms can (and often do) bid on lucrative Pentagon contracts for military-related AI work, they are not obligated to do so.
To further complicate matters, the report notes, many of America’s top programmers and computer techies are reluctant to work for the Department of Defense, whether on moral grounds—the reason cited by the thousands of Google employees who petitioned the company in 2018 to cease work on Project Maven (a Pentagon-funded effort to use AI in identifying enemy militants from images taken by drone spy planes, possibly for later missile strikes)—or out of income and lifestyle concerns: The Pentagon cannot match Silicon Valley’s six-figure salaries.
These disparities, the report claims, have prevented the United States from moving as swiftly as China in exploiting commercial innovations for military use. Hence, if this country is to overtake China in the AI arms race, it must find ways to harness the private sector for military purposes—in other words, to become more like China.
While insisting that they have no wish to duplicate China’s top-down command system, the commissioners nevertheless recommend a wide array of measures designed to work around the absence of such a framework. They include the creation of a national Digital Corps composed of tech professionals who’ve been recruited to staff key military and government offices; the formation of a National Reserve Digital Corps staffed by civilian techies who work for the Pentagon on a part-time basis; and the establishment of a Digital Service Academy modeled on the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies, but intended for civilian tech specialists.
Many of these measures are intended to raise the profile of military-oriented AI work and to reduce the potential stigma of working for the Department of Defense. The mission of the commission’s proposed Digital Service Academy, for example, would be “to develop, educate, train, and inspire digital technology leaders and innovators and imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and service to the United States of America.”
As during the Cold War, moreover, the nation’s entire educational enterprise would, under these plans, be revamped to promote training in AI-relevant fields. To this end, the commission calls for the passage of a “National Defense Education Act II (NDEA II),” modeled on the first NDEA approved at the height of the Cold War to train Americans to prevail in the US-Soviet rivalry. “Motivated by fear that America had fallen behind in education and innovation after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957,” the report states, Congress passed the original NDEA to promote the importance of science, mathematics, and foreign languages. Today, faced with a new Sputnik-like challenge, we are said to need a second NDEA, “one that mirrors the first legislation, but with important distinctions. NDEA II would focus on funding students acquiring digital skills, like mathematics, computer science, information science, data science, and statistics.”
And just as the original Cold War resulted in a witch hunt on college campuses to root out Soviet sympathizers, the commission advocates measures to better monitor the presence and activities of Chinese students and scholars in the United States. While opposing the severance of all scientific links between US and Chinese laboratories and universities, it calls for strengthened visa vetting to prevent visits to this country by Chinese scholars and scientists based at institutions with any connection whatsoever to the Chinese military, along with increased financial surveillance of US-based academics with ties to Chinese universities and think tanks. However carefully managed, it is hard to imagine how such measures can be implemented without leading to systematic discrimination against Chinese scholars at home and abroad.
Do We Really Want an AI Arms Race?
Not everything in the final NSCAI report is framed in Cold War–like rhetoric and oriented toward a tech war with China. Acknowledging that the rapid commercialization of artificial intelligence poses distinct risks for society—as, for example, when facial-recognition algorithms incorporate racial and gender biases unwittingly introduced by programmers—the commission calls for the adoption of rigorous industry standards intended to prevent such malfunctions. It cautions against giving machines too much power to make decisions over life and death. By and large, however, the report warns of a dire tech threat from China and the need to ramp up US efforts to weaponize its own AI capabilities.
Now that the report has been delivered to Congress and the White House, it is up to lawmakers and the public to evaluate the commission’s conclusions and recommendations. If all its proposals are embraced by US decision makers, we can expect a Cold War–like environment in which technological competition with China becomes the defining factor of American society. Aside from its distorting impacts on education and the economy, such a posture would fuel a new arms race in emerging technologies with little end in sight; other national priorities, such as medical research and climate change, would be brushed aside. This may seem like a reasonable price to pay for victory in a tech race we’re told is of paramount importance, but before succumbing to such alarmist reasoning, members of Congress should inquire whether AI will actually prove the determining factor on future battlefields and if it is necessary to abandon our ethical and moral principles to ensure supremacy in this one area of military competition.
One does not have to disavow research on artificial intelligence to question the commission’s military-oriented recommendations. There are many potentially beneficial uses of artificial intelligence, for example in the medical field, that deserve public support, but it is also vitally important to study and think about the potentially detrimental effects of AI, for example when police agencies use facial recognition algorithms with built-in biases. Congress should be very cautious when approving funds for the military application of AI, and insist on rigorous congressional oversight of any AI-enabled devices with a capacity to inflict harm on human beings.