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The US Could Lose the AI Arms Race

Developing artificial intelligence capabilities must become a national priority.

On September 1, 2017, more than a million Russian schoolchildren watched a televised address from Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Artificial intelligence is the future; not only of Russia, but of all of mankind," Putin said. "Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world."

Two months earlier, Beijing unveiled its plan to become the world leader in AI. South Korea will spend $2 billion on AI research by 2022. The U.K. has committed £68 million to funding research in AI and robotics, with plans to reach $1.3 billion over the next few years. France will invest more than €1.5 billion for AI research and to support emerging startups over the next five years. The Netherlands, Canada, Japan, India, Israel… every major country on the planet has gotten into the game.

Since the first days of this administration, experts across industry, academia, and government have been calling on the president to make the development of AI a major national priority. In May 2018, we were joined by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who urged the administration to develop a “whole of country” national strategy to advance U.S. development of AI and establish a presidential commission capable of “inspiring a whole of country effort that will ensure the U.S. is a leader not just in matters of defense but in the broader transformation of the human condition.”

Recently President Trump announced the U.S. response to the buildup in the AI arms race. In an executive order creating the American AI Initiative, the administration offered a high-level strategy guiding AI development. Not one dollar of funding thus far has been allocated for the effort.

Developing AI capabilities must become a true national priority. We will need to make significant investments to more fully develop the technology and capabilities we need to remain competitive in the global arena. Putting aside the ramifications of political adversaries lapping America on the AI track, there is a more immediate, and perhaps even more profound, economic existential exigency to not being caught flat-footed in the race of the robots.

Forrester Research has projected organizations adopting AI, internet of things, and big data technologies will take $1.2 trillion from their less-competitive peers by 2020. That is the equivalent of the GDP of Mexico shifting, nearly overnight, from less-enabled organizations to those that are prepared to reap what they sow. Moreover, in an increasingly geographically agnostic global economy populated by consumers unbounded by national pride, those tech-enabled businesses can be located anywhere on the planet.

Exacerbating the economic threat of AI, most economists and technologists agree that a significant percentage of current jobs will soon be replaced by robots, algorithms, and smart machines. Those job-replacing bots will be able to be located anywhere with a good internet connection; and when it comes to average connection speeds by country, the United States does not even rank among the top 10.

We’ve been here before. We can still win again.

In the post-WWII era, the U.S. had grown intellectually complacent. Nearly all our mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were aging European refugees. Then on October 4, 1957, Americans got a wake-up call when a 22-inch, 184-pound, Russian-made satellite began orbiting Earth. Spurred by Sputnik, one of the most successful government spending programs in history primed the pump of the U.S. economy. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 invested $1 billion in education. In 1973, the total cost of the Apollo program reported to Congress totaled $25.4 billion. These dual efforts enabled a new generation of STEM graduates to put men on the moon, establish Silicon Valley, and ushered in the modern age.

As we now face the threat of being bested in AI and other frontier technologies, it’s time to once again invest in American innovation, ingenuity, and education.

JT Kostman holds a doctorate in psychology and is managing director of applied artificial intelligence and leads the applied artificial intelligence and frontier technologies practice at Grant Thornton LLP.

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