U.S. ‘Not Prepared To Defend Or Compete’ With China On AI According To Commission Report

A new report issued to Congress and the President lays bare the threats posed by foreign AI weapons and issues a stern warning to American leadership.

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The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NCSAI, issued a report on Monday, March 1, 2021, which offers a stark warning to the leadership of the United States. According to the thorough 756-page report, China could likely soon replace the U.S. as the world’s leader in artificial intelligence, or AI, and that shift will have significant ramifications for the U.S. military at home and abroad. The full text of the report is listed on the NCSAI website.

The NCSAI was established by the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 and was established to consider the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt chaired the NCSAI alongside researchers, executives from private industry, and scientists from academia, Silicon Valley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Department of Defense. A full list of the NSCAI commissioners can be found here.

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Various threats posed by different types of AI weapons and tools cited in the report.

In the opening letter to the NSCAI report published this week, Schmidt and Vice Chair Robert Work, Former Deputy Secretary of Defense, issued the stern warning that “America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era,” adding that it will take many different sectors working together to confront America’s lack of preparedness and expertise:

This is the tough reality we must face. And it is this reality that demands comprehensive, whole-of-nation action. Our final report presents a strategy to defend against AI threats, responsibly employ AI for national security, and win the broader technology competition for the sake of our prosperity, security, and welfare. The U.S. government cannot do this alone. It needs committed partners in industry, academia, and civil society. And America needs to enlist its oldest allies and new partners to build a safer and freer world for the AI era.

There is already progress being made in terms of integrating AI into the national security arena and the U.S. military, but significant institutional roadblocks remain. The NSCAI report states that despite the progress being made in the private sector in terms of AI tools, “visionary technologists and warfighters largely remain stymied by antiquated technology, cumbersome processes, and incentive structures that are designed for outdated or competing aims.” In order to be prepared to confront an AI-driven global battlespace in the future, the report writes, the Department of Defense (DoD) must embrace a near-paradigm shift in terms of its institutional culture:

The obstacles to integrating AI are many. DoD has long been hardware-oriented toward ships, planes, and tanks. It is now trying to make the leap to a software-intensive enterprise. Spending remains concentrated on legacy systems designed for the industrial age and Cold War. Many Departmental processes still rely too much on PowerPoint and manually driven work streams. The data that is needed to fuel machine learning (ML) is currently stovepiped, messy, or often discarded. Platforms are disconnected. Acquisition, development, and fielding practices largely follow rigid, sequential processes, inhibiting early and continuous experimentation and testing critical for AI.

The DoD, and the USAF in particular, have been developing AI tools in recent years with a focus on use in sensors and navigation, autonomous UAV resupply missions, and potentially even unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Last year, an AI-controlled virtual F-16 defeated a top Air Force fighter pilot in each of five rounds of virtual dogfighting, while the USAF also awarded Boeing, General Atomics, and Kratos with contracts to build the autonomous “loyal wingman” drones that will soon fly alongside human airmen. These are far from the only types of uses of AI the DoD is eyeing, and in fact, they represent only a small segment of the potential applications of AI on the battlefield. 

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As noted in this graphic from the report, AI comes in a wide variety of forms, tools, and applications.

The NSCAI report specifically cites AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems of all types, not just autonomous aerial vehicles, noting that “the global, unchecked use of such systems could increase risks of unintended conflict escalation and crisis instability.” In particular, the report cites increasingly sophisticated cyberweapons, commercial drones armed with AI software “smart weapons” that can wreak havoc on infrastructure, and AI-enabled “weapons of mass influence” designed to sow discord among the U.S. populace.

While the authors of the report note that competition can be a positive force when it comes to technological innovation, American leadership should be wary of Chinese advances in AI due to the fact that “the AI competition is also a values competition.” The report notes that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is already using artificial intelligence as a “tool of repression and surveillance” both at home and abroad and that “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans.” The report notes that although Russia does not attempt to steal U.S. technologies and intellectual property on the same scale as China, the Russian government remains an "aggressive and capable collector of technologies" that could field AI weapons just rapidly as its Chinese counterparts.

America's two main adversaries are just as keenly aware of how AI supremacy could lead to battlefield supremacy and are making just as much investment into AI as the new NSCAI report recommends America does. In 2017, the Chinese government issued a statement that technological advances, including in AI, would make China the global leader by 2030. “By 2030, our country will reach a world-leading level in artificial intelligence theory, technology and application and become a principal world center for artificial intelligence innovation,” the CCP claimed. That same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin made similar comments, claiming that the path to global supremacy is paved with AI. “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” Putin said. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Both Russia and China are developing their own unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and both have been accused of leveraging AI-powered cyberattacks or misinformation campaigns against the United States.

Among the many recommendations the report makes, in order to counteract this rising foreign AI threat, one is bolstering the U.S. talent base through a new National Defense Education Act, scaling up digital talent in government, and establishing a domestic manufacturing base for microelectronics. Currently, the U.S. is almost entirely reliant on foreign-made electronics to power most of its technologies, both in the defense and consumer sectors. This has become an ever-worrying national security issue, as addressed in a January 2021 Executive Order aimed at mitigating the threats posed by foreign-made drone technologies or even foreign-made subsystems used in drones.

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The commission advises the U.S. government to more than double the amount of money it invests in AI R&D by 2026, aiming for $32 billion a year. The authors also recommended a huge boost in funding to institutions like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in order to sponsor research projects that address emerging AI threats and ways to mitigate them; establishing a Steering Committee on Emerging Technology, tri-chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence; and adding an additional $17.5 million to the DoD budget to support “innovative concept development.” In addition, the report recommends that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) pay a much closer watch to foreign investments in American technology research. 

The report’s key takeaway is that the Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) must be “AI-ready” by 2025, and that a significant talent deficit in those organizations is among the chief roadblocks in terms of U.S. preparedness for an AI-driven battlefield and future. This AI-readiness includes a widespread integration of AI tools throughout the DoD and IC and a significant focus on training, recruiting, and retaining the best talent from all related industries.

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While wars have for centuries been largely decided by which side possesses the best hardware, we are entering a brave new future in which software will hold the key to global supremacy. As we have noted with many other topics in our previous reporting, the laborious slow pace of procurement and innovation among the DoD has left the United States lagging behind in terms of its preparedness to face AI threats. Whether or not the NSCAI’s recommendations can help correct that course will no doubt be seen in the next international conflict that sees American AI-enabled tools face off against those of its peer rivals.

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com