The U.S. is now one to two years only ahead of China in developing artificial intelligence technologies and China is closing the gap fast, warns Eric Schmidt, chairperson of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) and former chairperson of Google, Inc.
In an assessment, Schmidt told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday the U.S. needs to maintain a five- to 10-year advantage over China, its "pacing competitor" in AI and other high technology fields like quantum computing and lasers.
That the U.S. lead is less than half this necessary edge is due to China remaining "relentlessly focused" on achieving dominance across the broad spectrum of high technologies, said Schmidt. He said research and development spending in the U.S. as a percentage of the gross domestic product is below the levels Washington spent before the Soviets successfully launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957.
He testified he's "worried we don't understand the competitive threat from China" that encompasses other technologies vital to U.S. national security such as semiconductor manufacturing, directed energy weapons or lasers, 5G technologies, synthetic biology, machine-learning and hypersonics.
Schmidt said a glaring weakness in the U.S. armor is the Pentagon's low regard for software and software development. He said software needs to be at the top of the Pentagon's priority list in the struggle against China.
Schmidt noted the Department of Defense doesn't have the flexibility to constantly change software and improve software as time passes.
"DoD treats software as a low priority," Schmidt told the committee.
He said the U.S. "needs to build missiles like cars," quickly and efficiently from design to deployment. This process shouldn't take years as imposed by the cumbersome 70-year-old Pentagon acquisition process, he pointed out.
This process has so many levels a department has to go through to reach production and deployment that almost anyone in that chain can stop it.
"You're wasting money" by following buying regulations that have a two-year lag time before money is appropriated to begin "a program of record" included in the budget submission.
Schmidt admitted it's not easy to change software under existing law. In addition, the Pentagon has been reluctant to use "special authorities" granted by Congress to avoid bottlenecks.
What the Pentagon has to do in the future is "to make sure the next technology success is not just for ... commercial activity but national security."
An example of the value of AI can be seen in its application to minesweeping where "most of the time is spent watching" by Navy minesweepers and not always detecting high-explosive sea mines.
"AI and machine learning is particularly good" at watching, according to Schmidt.
He said AI "can do this much, much better" than a sailor. Schmidt revealed China is also using AI extensively in facial recognition and the aggregation of health data to speed up electronic commerce.
Schmidt said NSCAI report on AI and other advanced technologies to be released next week will call for establishing 10 high-tech priorities the United States and its closest allies must invest in.
Established in 2018, NSCAI is an independent commission that will "consider the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States."