The US is a hotbed of artificial intelligence development and entrepreneurship, with nearly every software and hardware company of note pursuing its introduction. But despite this, Americans have “not yet grappled with just how profoundly the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution will impact the economy, national security, and welfare”.

That’s according to a new report from the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). 

Much remains to be learned about the power and limits of AI, it says, adding, “Nevertheless, big decisions need to be made now to accelerate AI innovation to benefit the United States and to defend against the malign uses of AI.”

According to the NSCAI, the ethical dimensions of the technology – people’s fears about its weaponisation or misuse, its potential to become too powerful, or to automate societal biases – are necessary. However, its application in authoritarian regimes means that the US can’t hold back on aggressively pursuing leadership in the sector itself.

Indeed, the report goes so far as to quote Henry Kissinger, controversial Secretary of State under President Nixon: “When your scope for action is greatest, the knowledge on which you can base this action is always at a minimum. When your knowledge is greatest, the scope for action has often disappeared.” 

The report says, “As a bipartisan commission of 15 technologists, national security professionals, business executives, and academic leaders, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) is delivering an uncomfortable message: America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era. This is the tough reality we must face. 

“The US government cannot do this alone. It needs committed partners in industry, academia, and civil society. And America needs to enlist its oldest allies and new partners to build a safer and freer world for the AI era.” 

Despite experimentation and isolated applications, the government itself is a long way from being ‘AI ready’, claims the report. AI integration is hard in any sector, it explains, but it demands leadership from the White House.

“We must win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China,” it continues. “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans. It is an AI peer in many areas and an AI leader in some applications. We take seriously China’s ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s AI leader within a decade.”

The NSCAI describes China’s domestic use of AI as setting a “chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty” via its widespread use in surveillance. 

The AI future can be democratic, the document continues, “but we have learned enough about the power of technology to strengthen authoritarianism abroad and fuel extremism at home to know that we must not take for granted that future technology trends will reinforce rather than erode democracy.”

It concludes, “We must work with fellow democracies and the private sector to build privacy-protecting standards into AI technologies and advance democratic norms to guide AI uses so that democracies can responsibly use AI tools for national security purposes.”

The comments make for fascinating reading, as the report is co-authored and chaired by Eric E Schmidt, former CEO and Chair of Google, and former executive chair of Google’s parent Alphabet, at a time when the growing power of several companies, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook, has been called into question. 

Social platforms have been accused of undermining democratic processes and damaging social cohesion. Meanwhile, Amazon has pursued a policy of selling real-time facial recognition systems and AI to security and law enforcement clients, which civil liberties groups have said risks automating racial profiling.

In 2018, Google was forced by its own employees to issue a statement of ethical principles for AI development – moves echoed by Microsoft and others – after an outcry over its involvement in Project Maven, a Pentagon system for identifying military targets, which effectively weaponised Google’s technology. 

In the same year, the company was also criticised for pursuing a censored version of its search facilities for China. Nevertheless, “this is not a time for abstract criticism of industrial policy,” claims the report.

The NSCAI goes on to sound the alarm on a geographical and political bottleneck in the hardware sector, which may threaten American dominance in the field. “The United States no longer manufactures the world’s most sophisticated chips. 

“We do not want to overstate the precariousness of our position, but given that the vast majority of cutting-edge chips are produced at a single plant separated by just 110 miles of water from our principal strategic competitor, we must re-evaluate the meaning of supply chain resilience and security. 

“A recent chip shortage for auto manufacturing cost an American car company an estimated $2.5 billion. A strategic blockage would cost far more and put our security at risk.”

This probably refers to Taiwanese outsourcing giant Foxconn, which also operates plants in China. The company’s hardware client list is a Who’s Who of American technology giants, including Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft – and Google.

Developing more efficient, faster, low-energy chips for AI inference and machine learning – especially at the edge and in data centres – is a priority for many US companies, including Facebook and Apple.