Report: The Government and Tech Need to Cooperate on AI

America’s national security depends on the government getting access to the artificial intelligence breakthroughs made by the technology industry.

So says a report submitted to Congress Monday by the National Security Commission on AI. The group, which includes executives from Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Amazon, says the Pentagon and intelligence agencies need a better relationship with Silicon Valley to stay ahead of China.

“AI adoption for national security is imperative,” said Eric Schmidt, chair of the commission, and formerly CEO of Google, at a news briefing Monday. “The private sector and government officials need to build a shared sense of responsibility.”

Monday’s report says that the US leads the world in both military might and AI technology. It predicts that AI can enhance US national security in numerous ways, for example by making cybersecurity systems, aerial surveillance, and submarine warfare less constrained by human labor and reaction times.

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But the commission also unspools a litany of reasons that US dominance on the world stage and in AI may not last, noting that China is projected to overtake US in R&D spending within 10 years while US federal research spending as a percentage of GDP “has returned to pre-Sputnik levels” and should be increased significantly.

Robert Work, vice chair of the commission and previously deputy secretary of defense under Obama and Trump, continued the Cold War comparisons in Monday’s news briefing. “We’ve never faced a high-tech authoritarian competitor before,” he said. “The Soviet Union could compete with us in niche capabilities like nuclear weapons and space but in the broad sense they were a technological inferior.”

Created by Congress last August to offer recommendations on how the US should use AI in national security and defense, the NSCA has strong tech industry representation. In addition to Schmidt, the 15-member commission includes Safra Katz, CEO of Oracle, Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business, and top AI executives from Microsoft and Google. Other members are from NASA, academia, the US Army, and the CIA’s tech investment fund.

Monday’s report says staying ahead of China depends in part on the US government getting more access to AI advances taking place inside tech companies—like those several of the commissioners work for. The document describes the Pentagon as “struggling to access the best AI technology on the commercial market.”

The Department of Defense has in recent years set up a series of programs aimed at forging closer relationships with Silicon Valley companies large and small. Mondays’s report suggests that pressure to find new ways to deepen relations will continue to grow, says William Carter, deputy director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The report clearly articulates that DoD continuing to do business the way it always has and expecting the world to go along with it is not going to work,” he says.

The commission won’t send its final recommendations to Congress until late next year, but Monday’s interim report says the US government should invest more in AI research and training, curtail inappropriate Chinese access to US exports and university research, and mull the ethical implications of AI-enhanced national security apparatus.

So far, attempts to draw tech companies into more national security contracts have had mixed results.

Employee protests forced Google to promise not to renew its piece of a Pentagon program, Project Maven, created to show how tech companies could help military AI projects. Microsoft has also faced internal protests over Army and Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts.

Yet Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella and his Amazon counterpart Jeff Bezos have issued full-throated statements in support of the idea of taking national security contracts. Last month, Microsoft won a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract motivated in part by a desire to improve the department’s AI capabilities. Deals like that could become more common if the commission proves to be influential.

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