The global war for algorithmic supremacy is on – and US is going all-out by focussing on talent, technology, and microchips
The battle for global supremacy will no longer be fought in the trenches, with boots on the ground, fighter jets in the air, or missiles in space; instead, it will be a war between the most powerful algorithms of the world. It has already started, and it is all about which nation achieves breakthroughs inartificial intelligence before others. Right now, the world is witnessing the biggest battle being played out between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. And a chilling message, that the US is not AI-ready to take on China, was recently delivered by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in its final report on the state of AI preparedness of the US.
The report is premised on the fact that AI technologies will be a source of enormous power for companies and countries that harness them. The rapidly improving ability of computer systems to solve problems and to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence – and in some instances exceed human performance – may alter the world.
AI technologies are the most powerful tools in generations for expanding knowledge, increasing prosperity, and enriching the human experience. AI is also the quintessential “dual-use” technology. The ability of a machine to perceive, evaluate, and act more quickly and accurately than a human represents a competitive advantage in any field – be it civilian or military.
NSCAI didn’t mince its words while writing the report: “America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era. This is the tough reality we must face. And it is this reality that demands comprehensive, whole-of-nation action.” The report identified three areas to focus on to gain AI supremacy –talent, hardware, and innovation. With China breathing down its neck, the US wants to invest in these areas to stay ahead in the race.
What comes as a surprise is the brutal assessment of US government and military approaches to AI in the context of the rapidly altering geopolitical dynamics. According to the report, the US government still operates at human speed, not machine speed. Adopting AI requires profound adjustments in national security business practices, organisational cultures, and mindsets from the tactical to the strategic levels – right from the battlefield back all the way to the Pentagon. The government lags in the commercial state of the art in most AI categories, including basic business automation. It suffers from technical deficits that range from digital workforce shortages to inadequate acquisition policies, insufficient network architecture, and weak data practices.
It appears that the US has targeted a three-point action plan:
- Meet the Talent Shortage
Since the US recognises the talent-deficit in AI, it wants to open immigration to attract skills in this area while improving STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) education to create an in-house talent pipeline from scratch. A proposal has been mooted to establish a new Digital Service Academy and civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same focus with which the country grows military officers. The digital age demands a digital-corps. The report urges the US Congress to pursue a comprehensive immigration strategy for highly skilled immigrants to encourage more AI talent to study, work, and remain in the United States through new incentives and visa, green card, and job-portability reforms. This might be fast-tracked in a post-Trump regime.
- Invest in Semiconductors
Hardware is the next most critical area, the report says, to channel investments to outcompete other nations in the AI race. It notes with concern that the most sophisticated semiconductors are no longer manufactured in the US, but thousands of miles away; either in Europe or in Taiwan – which is just 110 miles across the waters from China. Re-evaluating supply chain resilience and security has become mission-critical for the US.
A recent shortage of microchips needed for auto manufacturing, cost an American car company an estimated $2.5 billion. The US fears that an intentional strategic blockage could cost far more and put its security at risk. Hence, it is planning massive investments and incentives of over $35 billion to revitalise domestic microchip fabrication.
- Collaborate with Big Tech
The US is also worried that only a few big companies and powerful states will have the resources to make the biggest AI breakthroughs. Despite the diffusion of open-source tools, demands for computing power and troves of data to improve algorithms are soaring at the cutting edge of innovation. The government must partner with home-based companies, the report recommends, to “preserve leadership and to support development of diverse AI applications that advance the national interest in the broadest sense”. It estimates that a $40 billion investment to expand federal AI research and development (R&D) would be a modest down-payment on future breakthroughs. Building a secure digital infrastructure across the nation, shared Cloud computing access, and setting up smart cities to truly leverage AI for the benefit of all Americans is on the cards. The US is well aware that despite all their market-clout, Big Tech firms cannot compete against a powerful nation like China on their own. That will require a hybrid approach where government and private-sector join hands to win the technology competition.