The United States scrambled last century to win a “race” against the Russians to land a man on the Moon. A new race is under way this century, and the United States faces formidable competition not only from Russia, but China, as well. It’s the race to master and harness artificial intelligence (AI) technology, and like the space-based rivalries of yesteryear, it holds potentially immense implications for life here on Earth. A new White House directive this month, the “American Artificial Intelligence Initiative,” calls on federal agencies nationwide to invest more heavily in ensuring that the United States takes and holds the lead.

The initiative asks federal agencies to increase spending on pursuing new AI technologies, make more of their AI data and computer models available to outside researchers, and collaborate with private businesses on developing workable new AI systems, and training the U.S. workforce in AI-related skills. Additionally, the initiative directs the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to lead the formulation of new regulations for private and government AI efforts, and tasks the National Institute of Standards and Technology with establishing new standards for AI systems.

“AI advancement is imperative for improving the lives of our citizens, creating jobs for American workers, and keeping the American people safe at home and abroad,” reads an op-ed in Wired by Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the President for Technology Policy at the White House. “Now, thanks to the White House’s American AI Initiative, we will accelerate our advances in AI and ensure every American will benefit.”

The initiative does not offer any new federal funding, nor any specific benchmarks to measure U.S. progress in the “race.” It likewise comes with no specifics on which agencies should spend more, how much they should spend, and what their spending priorities should be.

It does, however, come with a rich subtext of deepening White House concern over geopolitical challenges from U.S. adversaries—namely, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Kratsios’ words about “keeping the American people safe” are a definitive clue.

So are these next few lines in his column: “The American AI Initiative calls for a strong action plan to protect our advantage from adversarial nations for the security of our economy and our nation … ultimately, we will win the race for AI.”

The U.S. Must Ramp Up to Keep Up on AI

The Soviet Union took the United States by surprise in the 1950s when it launched the first-ever space satellite and, shortly after, the first-ever human space mission. In our day, many U.S. officials worry that that the United States’ rivals—in particular, China—may be about to similarly surge ahead of it in AI. Among them is now-former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who wrote a memo to President Trump nearly a year ago urging action on AI. Mattis warned that the United States “was not keeping pace with the ambitious plans of China and other countries.”

China has already established a detailed national strategy, one aimed at marshaling all available public and private sector resources toward creating AI technologies that will advance its national interest. Russia has a formal AI game plan in place, as well, and expects to publicize a finalized version of it by this summer.

China’s AI ambitions

China’s Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan, which Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out in July 2017, calls on Beijing and Chinese businesses to work together to make China the world’s epicenter of AI development by 2030. An estimated 85% of all Chinese companies are actively involved in AI research and development, according to Forbes (only around 51% of U.S. companies are engaged in AI, by comparison).

China’s efforts include a wide range of pattern- and image-recognition technologies. For instance, the Beijing Subway plans to install a “bio-scanning” system that will scan passengers’ faces or palms, eliminating the need for printed tickets.

China also heavily invests in quantum computing—i.e., computers that use quantum phenomena to solve problems too complex for conventional computers. U.S. military engineers hope to use quantum systems to, on the one hand, transmit electronic messages that are nearly impossible for outsiders to hack—and, on the other, decrypt adversaries’ protected communiques. Chinese strategists have similar intentions with quantum computing.

Some Chinese AI projects entail AI-driven submarines, aerial drones, and armored vehicles. Others might involve the quiet warfare of industrial espionage and IP theft: The Chinese government’s AI business partners include Huawei—the same Huawei that the U.S. government alleges has been spying on U.S. businesses and government agencies through its smartphone and tablet hardware.

Russia Arming Up With AI

The country that masters AI “will get to rule the world,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2017 speech. The Kremlin has robustly increased funding for AI ventures since then, morphing a 2017 plan to spend $419 million on AI research and development by 2020 into one that will spend $719 million within the same time frame.

AI’s applicability to warfare is, unsurprisingly, a dominant focus of the Kremlin-backed efforts. Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Nikolai Pankov asserted last March that hundreds of projects—many of them in “artificial intelligence” and “robotics”—are under way in the nation’s military universities.

Russian military engineers are reportedly pursuing AI technologies that will help enhance weapons systems abilities to detect and strike their targets. A former Russian Air Force chief, Gen. Viktor Bondarev, said to expect Russian combat planes to deploy AI-enhanced cruise missiles that will analyze air and radar and adjust their flight paths accordingly.

Human analysts in Russian military units might use AI, meanwhile, to more quickly gather data from satellites and aircraft sensors and translate it into actionable intel. Russian military planners are also pursuing AI technologies that will help human pilots control fighter jets smoothly at four to six times the speed of sound.

Self-driving vehicles are yet another goal. Weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov recently announced that it will launch “autonomous combat drones” that will use AI to navigate battlefields and strike targets “on their own.” And an AI-enabled submersible craft, the “Galtel,” recently undertook successful searches for unexploded ordnance in the waters off Tartus, Syria, with no humans at the helm.

Rallying the Nation

Many Americans are used to thinking of China and Russia as “developing countries” that trail the so-called First World in technology and innovation. In AI, at least, this perception is not the truth. The two countries’ concerted public-private AI efforts are both on track to challenge—and possibly surpass—U.S. capabilities in some areas in years to come.

To be fair, the Soviet Union in 1960 seemed similarly on track to dominate space. Then the United States rallied, spurred on by then-President Kennedy’s exhortation to embark on the new frontier. This month’s White House initiative is another call to action. It is a statement of hope that, just as a concerted U.S. push erased the Soviet Union’s lead in space and won the race to the Moon, so might focused U.S. efforts today ensure that the United States doesn’t lose technological ground to Chinese and Russian AI.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.