President's Commentary: High Stakes in the Global AI Race

June 1, 2018
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Artificial intelligence, or AI, offers the promise of being the next great disruptive technology. Its reach and value seem limitless. But as with any disruptive innovation, it has the potential for negative effects when put in the hands of nefarious actors. And to prevent potential adversaries from exploiting the capability, the free world must commit to a concentrated effort on AI research and development.

AI often is viewed as a panacea for problem-solving that requires thinking, analyzing or information processing. However, technology is not a panacea. AI shows tremendous promise in the ability to aggregate large amounts of data, permitting decision makers to more precisely focus on specific targets. It gives them the ability to sift through huge volumes of data to arrive at a solution.

AI also has the potential to delve deeply to help solve vast problems ranging from health care challenges to military confrontations. Currently, its value lies in the ability to process large amounts of information quickly for decision makers. Information has become a most valuable commodity for government, academia, industry and the military. AI is the key to exploiting this information as it continues to proliferate and grow in importance.

In the future, AI will be able to take on greater roles in decision making itself. It will have a profound and ever-increasing role in the way we conduct our lives.

An emerging area where AI likely will have a disruptive influence is transportation, as vehicles of all types become more and more autonomous. Agriculture will benefit from AI-inspired systems that direct crop planting, watering, feeding and harvesting. The military, of course, will apply AI beyond intelligence to guide unmanned systems and to aid in decision making.

The United States currently leads in AI research, but the race is on to develop and wield AI advances. China has a nationally focused effort, pumping billions of dollars into AI. That country has made no secret of its long-term plans to lead the world in AI by 2030 at the latest. It has its eyes on the prize and considers AI a national priority. What’s bothersome about this is that China does not follow global behavioral norms. It often plays by a different set of rules than the international community at large. Its leadership and politically influenced commercial base can muster and sharply focus national resources and policy with little internal debate or dissent. When viewed through the lenses of contrasting political, cultural and ethical values, the way China applies AI could be quite different from the way that others would want this disruptive technology to be employed.

And as AI advances, ethical issues certainly will rise to the fore. These include privacy rights and biogenetic engineering concerns, both of which will increase in importance as AI-inspired ways of using greater amounts of data begin to emerge. Further, AI has tremendous potential for influencing group behavior. With a centralized and authoritarian political structure, nations such as China, which seem to be less encumbered by the interpretation and application of international law and individual rights, will have a straighter road to AI innovation.

We already have seen some demonstrations of AI’s progress and potential power. Computers have defeated the world chess champion, Jeopardy! game show winners and the master of the ancient Eastern strategy game Go. At some point in the not-too-distant future, on a graph of intellectual capability, AI will intersect and then cross the line representing the human brain.

The United States has several major thrusts in AI that could help promote the technology. One such effort was announced by Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. He has established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC. Its purpose is to integrate useful applications of AI into national defense strategy. To that end, we need a focused technological renaissance and teamwork to break down the barriers that hinder progress among government, industry and academia in the development and application of AI.

The future of AI progress is not fully apparent: The crystal ball is more clouded than clear. Now is the time to double down on AI and press ahead hard on research and development. If the United States and other free-world nations yield AI leadership to countries that do not share their democratic values, then science fiction-esque fears about AI could pale in comparison with the real threat posed by adversaries exploiting this disruptive technology.

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