The Next Space Race Is Artificial Intelligence

And the United States is losing.

The Chinese flag flies before a rising moon at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Dec. 13, 2013.  (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
The Chinese flag flies before a rising moon at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Dec. 13, 2013. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly 60 years ago, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson seized his colleagues with a stark Cold War warning: Whoever wins the space race, he predicted, would gain “control, total control, over the Earth for purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom.”

The United States won that race not only by reaching the moon but by inspiring the next generation of scientists, technologists, and optimists.

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed Johnson’s forecast in light of the next great technological race: artificial intelligence, or AI. “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Putin said.

Johnson, leaning into the consequences of the Soviet threat, can be accused of hyperbole. Putin can be accused of the same and, perhaps, worse. But there is truth in their common understanding of technology’s power, one that transcends generations and geopolitics. Right now, we fear, the United States is at risk of losing this critical race.

One of us commanded 150,000 troops from 50 nations; the other invents AI technologies that are used in — among other applications — energy, finance, and systems for our national defense. We have seen firsthand how AI will transform warfare, from autonomous flight control systems that can revolutionize air combat to algorithms that can give commanders an unprecedented and precise view of the battlefield. Soon, AI also will become the most potent enabler of competitive advantage throughout most areas of our society and economy, both in work and leisure — with consequences far beyond the usual debate about automation supplanting manufacturing jobs.

While the United States is the birthplace of AI and has historically been the home of the most important innovations and research institutions in this space, our global competitors are on our heels. China recently announced a multibillion-dollar AI development plan to lead the world in the technology by 2030. Russia is developing the next-generation MiG-41 fighter with AI that could control the aircraft at hypersonic speeds as fast as Mach 6. If we don’t approach this contest with the same fierce focus we found during the Cold War, we risk losing a lot more than pride.

We don’t need an advanced machine to calculate where our competition is outpacing us. We can see our weaknesses with the naked eye: The exclusion of AI from our high-level national agenda, a reduction in science and technology funding, and immigration curbs all harm our competitiveness. The question is whether we’ll correct course before it’s too late. We have lots of thinking to do about the problems we face and what action to take.

First, the same openness that encourages American researchers to lead the world in innovation also pushes their discoveries quickly into public view before they are even granted protection. Coupled with accessible online lectures from top universities, competitors copy our research easily. While we value America’s culture of academic openness, U.S. companies need a faster patent process and government support that can give them some teeth in intellectual property disputes with foreign infringers.

Second, our regulatory regime makes it more difficult to build things in the United States and sell them to other countries, creating a market for foreign competitors who would otherwise not stand a chance. For years, the United States curbed exports of encryption technology and basic processors. This only led international competitors to fulfill demand, creating a market for themselves. When U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey needed access to unmanned aerial systems to prosecute the war on terror, these requests were delayed or denied. We have since lost almost all of these markets to Chinese exports and indigenous development. As the clamor for curbs on AI grows, we need to keep our competitiveness in mind when we put rules in place.

Third, China is publishing a larger number of papers than the United States about deep learning and beating us in fielding supercomputers. We need more public investment in AI research, not cutbacks in agencies that have been longtime backers of this field, as the current administration’s budget proposes. We also need more science and technology funding to compete with the billions of dollars China is investing in its 2030 vision.

Fourth, China is attracting better AI talent and buying American tech companies. The solutions are simple: Give more green cards, not fewer, to experts in this field; give more federal grants, not fewer, to support AI research labs at public universities; and invest more, not less, in educational programs like the Rhodes Scholarship to attract future Ph.D.s. Our government should also support deserving small businesses specializing in AI the way it did for clean energy companies, offer tax breaks to those that produce this technology the way it did for electric cars, and give AI start-ups a limited tax holiday the way other countries have done for software companies.

We should never lose sight of the fact that AI represents a breakthrough in humanity’s ability to invent. We must resist AI alarmists like Elon Musk who irresponsibly label this technology an effort to “summon the demon” and blame it for a coming world war. The race to dominate the AI space doesn’t have to be a story about fear of technology. If anything, what we should fear is ceding our leadership in critical areas of defense and industry if we fail to pursue science and technology research with a sense of national purpose.

We are certain that Russia and China will do what they must for their national security. Every dollar in AI investment that the United States cuts and every way in which it gets harder for American companies to attract capital comforts our competitors.

A few years after then-Sen. Johnson predicted what the space race would mean for global leadership, he sat directly behind President John F. Kennedy in the U.S. Capitol while Kennedy pledged America would go to the moon. The audience wasn’t just the members of Congress in the chamber whom Kennedy asked to authorize funding. It was also the millions of young Americans who would cite that speech as their inspiration to study computers, math, engineering, and the cosmos.

When Putin made his prediction in September, he did so to a broadcast audience of a million Russian schoolchildren. How many of them are now dreaming of studying computer science, building the next great machines, and advancing their own national security and national interest?

Artificial intelligence is the next giant leap for mankind. The country that took the first steps on the moon must now take the right steps toward tomorrow.

John R. Allen is the president of the Brookings Institution, a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general, and a former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

Amir Husain is the founder and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based SparkCognition, a leading U.S. artificial intelligence company.

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