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China's Application of AI Should Be a Sputnik Moment for the ­.S. But Will It Be?

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A robot developed by China's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology on display at a trade show in Chiba, Japan.

Corporate and government leaders agree that Chinas rapid application of Artificial Intelligence to business and military problems should be a Sputnik moment to propel change in the U.S.

Credit: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg News

A conference here to gather American business and military experts to discuss the coming revolution in artificial intelligence was a good Election Day measure of the challenges ahead to maintain the U.S. competitive edge.

Corporate and government leaders agree that China's rapid application of AI to business and military problems should be a "Sputnik moment" to propel change in America. As a top-down command economy, China is directing money and its best brains to develop the smart systems that will operate cars, planes, offices and information — along with the transformation of warfare.

The United States is struggling to respond to this world-changing challenge. What's underway is frail and exists mostly on paper. Congress this year passed legislation calling for a national AI commission, but so far it's just a concept. The Pentagon in June established a new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center that will spend $1.75 billion over six years, but critics fear it will be far short of what's needed.

"There is no quarterback" for AI, says Amy Webb, author of a forthcoming book called "The Big Nine " about the top U.S. and Chinese AI companies. The United States started with a technology lead, but U.S. efforts are dispersed and decentralized. Companies have trouble sharing the structured data that machines can learn on.

"China is the OPEC of data," argues Webb. In a totalitarian society, every human and social interaction feeds a vast pool of structured data for machines to ingest. The Chinese government can then commandeer companies and people, as needed.

America may need an "AI czar," argues Ashton B. Carter, former secretary of defense for President Barack Obama. That's because no current agency or White House office is empowered to coordinate an effort as complicated as the Manhattan Project, which built a nuclear weapon, or the "space race" that put a man on the moon. But mobilizing resources in this way requires political vision and leadership, which are lacking today in both parties.

"China has a national strategy and is executing it. That's what's missing. There is no compelling overarching policy," argues Paul Scharre, who studies AI at the Center for a New American Security. "It has to be a national effort, especially in terms of talent management," agrees Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense.


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