AI commission proposes U.S. fund $32B in AI research


Federal officials and tech luminaries such as Eric Schmidt are laying down the law on the need to bump up competition with China on new technologies including AI.

China is investing in AI research and there is “every reason to think that the competition with China will increase,” said Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO said on Monday. “My concern is actually that we are ahead, but they are catching up.”

Schmidt spoke at a meeting of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, where he serves as chair. The group met on Monday to approve a final report on the path ahead to bolster U.S. superiority in AI. The report will go to Congress, which established the commission as part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

One proposal calls for U.S. funding of $32 billion in non-defense federal research by 2026.

“We don’t feel this is the time for incremental toggles to federal research budgets or adding a few new positions in the Pentagon for Silicon Valley technologists,” said Robert Work, former secretary of defense and vice chair of the NSCAI. “Those just won’t cut it. This will be expensive and requires significant change in the mindset at the national, and agency, and Cabinet levels.”

“America needs White House leadership, Cabinet member action and bipartisan congressional support to win the AI competition and the broader technology competition,” Work added, according to a recorded video stream of the meeting.

Work warned that the U.S. armed forces technical advantage could be lost within the next decade if the U.S. does not accelerate the adoption of AI and other advanced technologies. “Our major military rivals are really all-in on military AI applications,” he said.

Among 15 other recommendations, the report calls for the Department of Defense and intelligence community to reach a state of AI readiness by 2025.  Their recommendations look at leadership, talent, hardware and innovation investment as well.

Also, the commission calls for creation of a Technology Competitiveness Council in the White House and a Steering Committee on Emerging Technology in the Defense Department. As well, it urges creating an accredited digital services academy to boost the numbers of civil servants with technology training.

The 15-member commission includes representatives of Oracle, Microsoft, Google and Amazon Web Services, among others.

In a joint statement in the report, Schmidt and Work cited how AI-enabled disinformation attacks are already being used to “sow division in democracies and jar our sense of reality.”

They said the U.S. government “is a long way from being ‘AI-ready.’ The commission’s business leaders are most frustrated by slow government progress because they know it’s possible for large institutions to adopt AI…We need those leaders in the Pentagon and across the federal government to build the technical infrastructure and connect ideas and experimentation to new concepts and operations. By 2025, the DoD and the intelligence community must be AI ready.”

The men dinged China for its domestic use of AI used in facial recognition and related surveillance technologies. “China’s domestic use of AI is a chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty,” they wrote.” Its employment of AI as a tool of repression and surveillance—at home and increasingly abroad—is a powerful counterpoint to how we believe AI should be used. The AI future can be democratic…We must not take for granted that future technology trends will reinforce rather than erode democracy.”

They compared the $32 billion recommended for AI R&D to the $10 billion spent in 1956 to for the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight Eisenhower, a fiscally conservative Republican working with a Democratic Congress.  “That’s $96 billion in today’s world. Surely we can make a similar investment in the nation’s future,” Schmidt and Work wrote.

One analyst who follows China technology prowess said the recommendations are necessary. "The U.S. needs to up its game in facing Chinese competition militarily, economically and in terms of societal betterment," said Leonard Lee, an analyst and managing director at neXt Curve. "AI and big data have been key aspects of Chinese initiatives such as Internet+ and the Digital Silk Road."

Lee agreed that the U.S. generally leads in AI and 5G, but falls behind China in the development and application of these technologies in industry. "The challenge will be the broad democratization of AI with open-sourcing of technology and the common use of COTS hardware across strategic tech genres such as AI, 5G and IoT..."  

Also, the U.S. faces the challenge of a very interlaced semiconductor and hardware supply chain between the U.S. and China, Lee said. Future domestic U.S. sourcing and fabrication of microelectronics, as some support, will likely create trade tensions with U.S. allies such as South Korea and Taiwan, countries that are already planning to improve their own domestic fabs and want to gain trade autonomy.

"The most pressing matter is to close the STEM talent gap with China," Lee said.

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