What’s next for national security and artificial intelligence?

A massive report from the National Security Commission on AI detailed how the U.S. can maintain a technological advantage over China.

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It’s hard to find anything missing in the massive report just delivered to Congress from the National Security Commission on artificial intelligence. AI, it turns out, lies at the center of the emerging great powers competition with China. My next guest, a former Deputy Defense Secretary, was co-chair of that commission. Bob Work spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Work, good to have you back.

Bob Work: It’s great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: And this was really a massive undertaking two years in the making here. What do you want lawmakers and what do you want the government fundamentally to take away from the report?

Bob Work: Two key things: First, since the end of World War II, the United States unquestionably has been the kind of technological leader in the world. That has built the foundation under both our economic competitiveness and our military competitiveness. And it is advantaged that the United States should not want to lose. China has determined that it wants to surpass the United States as the global AI hegemon. And they have a national strategy in place to do it, and they are really putting a lot of thought, attention and resources to surpass the United States. And they have set as a target the year 2030. So that’s the first thing — we’re in a very serious competition for technological leadership. And the second part is we’re not organized or ready for this competition. And we need to get serious about it if we want to maintain our technological leap.

Tom Temin: And what would sustained leadership in AI look like? Because if you go back to earlier challenges –say the atomic bomb is maybe the granddaddy of them all — there was a tangible single point at which you would say, we have it, they don’t. Artificial Intelligence is almost a system of systems, you might say.

Bob Work: Oh, that’s exactly right. AI is not a single technology, Tom, but a collection of tools and techniques that rely on and can be applied across all other fields. We didn’t recommend that the United States pursued leadership in AI as an end unto itself, but again, as part of a broader strategy to promote U.S. technological competitiveness. So by treating AI as part of a constellation of emerging technologies, which was part two of our report, and these emerging technologies include biotechnology, quantum science, 5G communications, semiconductors and energy systems. AI is central to all of those, because it will make all of them better, and it will generally help start all of the new advances in each of these. So by applying it across this emerging set of technologies, we can build national competitiveness rather than overhyping AI as end unto itself. So that’s why we recommend that the White House publish an executive order which explicitly lists the key technologies in which our national leadership believes the U.S. must lead in its overall competitiveness.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned semiconductors, which, of course, is a big issue right now in the supply chain, and in all areas of dominance and commercial competition. And yet, you know, this leading supplier that the world depends on is literally being overflown by Chinese war fighters, as we speak, you know, in Taiwan. So it seems like a lot of other things have to happen besides widespread knowledge of how to apply AI, so that we have something to apply it to?

Bob Work: Oh, that’s exactly right, Tom. The way we thought about it in the commission is, we do believe the United States — and really the West, more generally — the United States, the Netherlands and Japan, for example, lead the world in the technologies to create the chips necessary to power an AI revolution. And we get a lot of the chips from the island of Taiwan. And so what we say is, look, we’re about 110 miles from losing access to the vast majority of these cutting edge electronics if China decided to invade Taiwan. And so we need to hedge against that possibility and to revitalize our own domestic semiconductor manufacturing, which essentially we bought short. And it’s an expensive proposition. My gosh, putting together some of these fabrication facilities for semiconductors can cost up to $30 billion or $40 billion. So it’s unlikely that private sector will be able to do that on its own, and the government is going to have to help in some way.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Work. He’s distinguished fellow with the Center for a New American Security and co-chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, just concluded. And you do mention at length an integrated national strategy that the commission laid out, just give us the broad outlines of what that strategy would look like that you’re urging on, I guess, federal government and its partners.

Bob Work: I think the best way to do this, Tom, is just to go over the four pillars for action that we said we have to undertake as a nation to really get ready for this competition. The first one is leadership. And we recommended a technology competitiveness council at the White House. Our idea was based on the National Security Council in the Cold War, and the National Economic Council in the post-Cold War era. And essentially, that would be the place where the senior leaders would decide how best to approach this competition. Are there areas that we would want to go to have more government intervention to make sure that we lead in specific areas? What are the ways in which we form the government, or we require the government to work together? So that’s the first pillar — leadership. The second pillar is talent. We have a talent deficit in that we have much more demand for talent than we have supply right now. And what we’re talking about are people who have computer science degrees, software engineers, things like that. STEM, more broadly. And we need to build new talent and expand existing programs into the government. So we thought in terms of having a digital service for the U.S. government and for the Department of Defense, where we would attract people with these very highly specialized technological skills. And we would put them in areas where we need them to gain advantage. And we had ideas for a U.S. Digital Service Academy, modeled after the military academies, where young men and women could go get their STEM degree and then go into the government, and also a civilian National Reserve digital corps, modeled after the ROTC program, where people could go to any college, get their degree and then support the government in some way. And we also recommended a new National Defense Education Act, too, which would really focus on improving K-12 STEM education. The third pillar we just talked about: hardware. You know, we need to have a domestic fabrication facility to hedge against the possibility of being cut off from these micro electronics. And we recommend trying to maintain a two generation lead over China. And generally what this means is you’ll hear seven nanometer, five nanometer, three nanometer chips. The smaller the chips, the more powerful they are, the faster they are. And so we want to try to maintain at least a two generation lead over China. So we want to incentivize merchant fabrication facilities, we want to double down on microelectronics research and we want to have a national microelectronic strategy.

Tom Temin: And the fourth pillar?

Bob Work: The fourth pillar really is the resources for the innovation, we think, and that is creating a new National Technology Foundation to sit alongside the National Science Foundation. And this would really focus on using these for national competitiveness. One of the double annual federal spending for AI-related non defense r&d to reach about $32 billion per year by 2026, create regional innovation clusters across the United States to support domestic industry and establish a national AI research infrastructure to provide all of our academia and commercial companies access to AI resources to improve on their own. So those were the four pillars. Then we had two themes, Tom, that kind of cut across the pillars. The first one was partnerships: working with our allies and partners to remain a critical advantage. And we think that’s important because we define this competition as a values competition, and that’s why it’s so important, we thought, that the United States take this competition seriously.

Tom Temin: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that idea. Because the values of China and the U.S. are so different with respect to individual liberty, individual privacy, protection of individual rights. China doesn’t basically recognize any of that. We do. And yet AI has the potential to impinge on those things. How do we thread through that issue?

Bob Work: Well, this is an issue that’s important for our citizens to understand, because, you know, we got a lot of questions, like why should we worry about this? And we really wanted to talk about it in terms of our values, our democratic values. All of these constellations of technologies I mentioned — biotech, quantum 5G, semiconductors and energy systems — they will be deployed on platforms around the world. Just like we saw Huawei trying to deploy their 5G platform. And without question, the platform’s reflect the values of the governments that are deploying them. So we already know how China wants to use AI. They want to use AI to surveil their population, to suppress minorities and, as you said, they really have no care about privacy, civil liberties or civil rights. No American should want to live in a world in which most of the technological platforms reflect those type of values. They should reflect democratic values that value privacy, that protect civil liberties and civil rights and approach AI in an ethical manner. So this values competition is very, very important. And one that I hope everyone kind of tries to think through and say, what kind of world would I want to live in? Do I want a world in which AI is surveilling me on a day to day basis? Knowing every click I make? Knowing every purchase I decide? I don’t think too many Americans would want that kind of world.

Tom Temin: I guess we have a Facebook for that in the meantime.

Bob Work: Yeah, no kidding. And that’s why partnerships are so important, because the West — more generally, the democratic League of Nations — you know, they need to work together for this future in which democratic values are emphasized in our technologies.

Tom Temin: And another point in the report was the need to look at intellectual property law and policy, which gets revised from time to time. It’s been about 10 years since anything comprehensive. What were the main recommendations on that front?

Bob Work: Well, the key thing there is we recommended the Department of Commerce undertake a true end-to-end review of our IP policies, and that the US should actually designate IP as a national priority, and develop a comprehensive plan to reform our current policies and regimes, which, as you say, are dated and are not adequate for the competition we found ourselves in. So we thought the Secretary of Commerce should assess and identify additional efforts that the executive branch could undertake to counter IP theft threats particularly, and including actions so that we could collaborate with allies and partners. So really, the United States has to say IP is a national security priority. It’s important that we get it right to win this competition. And we need to have a new updated plan. So our primary recommendation was, you have to tell someone in the government. On our case, we think it’s Secretary of Commerce to say get on this and report to the president. Any company that wants to conduct business in China has to develop an integrated IP strategy of their own. This will require that they become familiar with China’s core IP laws and regulations, and assessing the risks that they might face doing business with China, and then develop a protection strategy if they feel that they can mitigate the risks.

Tom Temin: You know, as someone who has worked at the highest levels, along with secretaries of Defense on issues of national military competitiveness, and the ultimate ability to protect the nation and projected values, you must want to maybe take this report and walk the halls of Congress and the agencies and take people by the lapels. What has been the reception in the few short couple of weeks since the report has been out?

Bob Work: We have been very, very gratified by the reception, especially in Congress and in the White House and in the Department of Defense. Congress has been our primary customer, we felt, from the very beginning. They’re the ones that established the commission. They’re the ones that gave us our marching orders. They were extremely supportive throughout the entire process. I believe, at last count, there were 18 or 20 recommendations from the report already inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act for the Department of Defense. There are all sorts of initiatives going. Several members have picked up the idea of a National Digital Service Academy and the National Digital Reserve Corps. And that is now in legislation, being debated, etc. Where it goes, I don’t know. And I would say that Congress really, really understands the stakes of this competition. We briefed the Problem Solvers Caucus. They were extremely supportive. We briefed the committees at both the classified and unclassified level. The White House has really done a lot of things in terms of increasing the amount of resources for basic research, having AI institutes and quantum institutes, standing those up. And the Department of Defense, for example, we recommended that the Joint AI Center be designated as the primary AI accelerator in the Department of Defense, and that it report directly to the Deputy Secretary of Defense to make sure that its inputs are going into the highest level of leadership in the department. So I would say, Tom, that we have been extremely gratified and excited about the reception of the report. And as you said, it’s a pretty extensive report — over 750 pages, hundreds of recommendations — and it’s going to take a time to kind of punch through this. So we’re in that stage now.

Tom Temin: Bob work is distinguished fellow at the Center for a New American Security and co-chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. As always, thanks so much for joining me.

Bob Work: It’s great to be here, Tom. This is an important subject and thank you for talking about it on your show.

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