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Opinion: Wake-up call: The U.S. is losing ground to China in artificial intelligence

The U.S. and China are racing for dominance in artificial intelligence, a new stage of competition for the world’s two largest economies. Who’s leading, why and for how long?

According to former Pentagon software chief Nicolas Chaillan, China is ahead. Slow progress in technological transformation of the U.S. military is “putting the United States at risk,” he said in the article.

That pessimistic conclusion is in stark contrast with an assessment made by Raj Iyer, the U.S. Army’s chief intelligence officer, who called it “absolutely not true.”

The U.S. has a vast network of global partnerships that exchange intelligence information on a regular basis, providing both the military and intelligence agencies with a big-picture strategic overview that can’t be matched by the Chinese, Iyer said.

The same sentiment is shared by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The Chinese operate in vacuum, Iyer explained. The only way it’s able to get bits and pieces of this kind of information is through cybercrime, espionage and other nefarious methods, he argued.

As for applying AI technologies, Iyer acknowledged that the Chinese have the upper hand, but its success comes at the cost of personal freedom and human rights, as the Chinese government uses the technology to subjugate and control its population.

While U.S. intelligence has overstepped boundaries in the past, these transgressions pale in comparison to China’s social-credit system, digital-identification methods and other means of oppression implemented by the Chinese Communist Party.

Can the U.S. catch up?

Does the U.S. need to follow in the same footsteps in order to attain superiority in this segment at any cost?

Chaillan seems to think so, human rights and personal freedom be damned. According to the Reuters article, he blamed sluggish innovation, the reluctance of U.S. companies such as Alphabet
to work with the state on AI and extensive ethical debates over the technology.

He lamented that Chinese companies are obliged to work with their government and were making massive investments in AI without regard to ethics.

To sum up: The U.S. needs to be more aggressive and mimic at least some aspects of the Chinese model.

The problem is that this a schoolbook example of the “end justifies the means” approach, a phrase coined by 19th-century Russian revolutionary Sergey Nechayev. Tyrants around the world have regularly abused this idea over the course of history, using a sense of (often false) urgency at its core. If the crisis, manufactured or not, seems plausible enough to decision makers, they will use it as an excuse to do “whatever they need to” in order to resolve the situation. More often than not, they will extend their power beyond what would be acceptable in normal circumstances. This is a hallmark of authoritarian transitions.

American overreach

Still, how far has America gone?

Earlier this year, Rand published a report sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. The document highlights that the latest Sino-Russian alliance, which commenced in 2014, exists in 2021, and will most likely be sustained in the future. The goal of the report is to assess the impact of the Chinese-Russian relationship on the United States and implications for future U.S. policy.

According to the report: “In the event of closer China-Russia collaboration, we anticipate relaxation in the constraints on the exchange of military technologies. Russia and China might share their best capabilities; collaborate in high-impact research and development, such as with hypersonic glide vehicles, counter-space systems, and artificial intelligence.”

While the alliance has provided China with a powerful partner, one must not forget that this cooperation was necessary if both countries wanted to stand a modicum of chance against the nation with the largest military spending in the world.

Also, let’s not forget that China faces multiple challenges on its way to a “national rejuvenation” — ones that will most likely cause it to crash and burn, rather than become world’s biggest economy.

Facing such a bleak scenario, China needs all the allies it can get. Finally, this is like any other strategic partnerships we’ve seen in the past; while concerning, it’s a far cry from a hopeless scenario painted by the Pentagon’s ex-software chief.

Constant vigilance required

So, is this “dire warning” in the U.S. intended to create a sense of urgency that could justify a change of policy toward overreach? It’s too early to tell, but if yes, it wouldn’t be the first such attempt, and it most likely won’t be the last. We live in times of turmoil and the current health crisis is a perfect excuse for all manners of overreach.

AI is a staple technology and a supportive element for many branches and industries, including the military, and saying the U.S. needs to accelerate its development is not wrong. We should move forward as fast as we can, provided democracy, personal freedoms and human rights are not stifled in the process. If we trample over those core values and decide that the end justifies the means, we are no different than countries we’re trying so hard to outcompete.

Therefore, it is my hope that the U.S. government in all its forms will remain informed well enough to withstand this type of pressure and keep up the steady course of military advancement that respects not only its allies, but also the American people whom it serves.

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