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The AI Race is On

One of the most impactful arms races of the modern era ended in November 1990 when 30 nations signed the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, creating limitations for major armaments of NATO and reducing the likelihood of a surprise armed attack in Europe.

The signing of the CFE signified the end of the Cold War and the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States that began after American scientists created the atomic bomb. The subsequent competition between the two nations—once allies in World War II—to increase their nuclear arsenals, support opposite sides in the Korean War, develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, and build up their military forces created a Cold War conflict and arms race with great ramifications for the modern world.

Now, we are living in the middle of a new arms race between global powers as technologists, scientists, and military leaders work to develop artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

AI is still in its early stages, but already researchers know that it can be used to solve problems and tasks, sometimes at levels that would outperform humans. This poses a great advantage, but also a potential danger depending on how AI is developed and implemented over time.

These concerns were highlighted when news broke in April 2019 that China had developed a facial recognition technology to track members of a Muslim minority group, Uyghurs. The New York Times assessed that it was the first known instance of a government using artificial intelligence for racial profiling. China has denied the allegations that it targets Uyghurs or other minority groups.

“The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uyghurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review,” according to the Times, which broke the story. “The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.”


The United States is at the forefront of the development of AI. But new assessments suggest that China may soon outpace it, raising concerns that the technologies that will shape the civilian and military worlds for the next generations may not be created with Western values of democracy, free speech, and privacy in mind.

“AI is expanding the window of vulnerability the United States has already entered,” wrote the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in its final report published in March 2021. “For the first time since World War II, America’s technological predominance—the backbone of its economic and military power—is under threat. China possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change.”

The commission—composed of members appointed by the U.S. Congress and secretaries of Commerce and Defense—also found that AI deepens the threat that other global powers, like Russia, will use to infiltrate their adversaries, steal data, and interfere with democracy.

“The winner of the AI competition will accrue a $13 trillion dollar advantage,” said Robert Work, vice chair of the commission and former deputy secretary of defense, in testimony before Congress. “This technology will affect our lives in the way it affects citizens…this is a technology competition that is very important for us to win.”


China has long seen AI as a technology to invest in and develop as part of its strategic plan. In 2017, China’s State Council released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP) that laid out its strategy—along with Made in China 2025—to be at the forefront of AI development.

“AI has become a new focus of international competition,” according to the AIDP. “AI is a strategic technology that will lead in the future; the world’s major developed countries are taking the development of AI as a major strategy to enhance national competitiveness and protect national security.”

While it’s not clear exactly how many resources China has devoted to the development of AI, two regional governments did disclose in 2017 that they were each investing 100 billion yuan ($15.2 billion) in AI.

In a paper for the Center for a New American Security, Gregory C. Allen—former senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Technology and National Security Program—wrote about conversations he had with Chinese officials on their views of AI.

Allen detailed that Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders view becoming a leader in AI as necessary to reduce the nation’s dependence on imports of international technology. Officials also expressed great concerns about how AI would change the thresholds for military action.

“Chinese officials also expressed concern that increased use of AI systems would make misperceptions and unintentional conflict escalation more likely due to the lack of well-defined norms regarding the use of such systems,” Allen explained. “Additionally, Chinese officials displayed substantive knowledge of the cybersecurity risks associated with AI systems, as well as their implications for Chinese and international security.”

Because of this, China has pursued involvement in setting norms and cooperation for AI regulations internationally. But its leadership also views military usage of AI as inevitable, and has been investing in security-focused applications of the technology.

“Compared to the rest of the world, investment into Chinese AI companies is concentrated in transportation, security, and biometrics (including facial recognition), and arts and leisure, while in the United States and other countries, companies focused on business uses, general-purpose applications, and medicine and life sciences attract more capital,” according to analysis from Brookings.


Europe is also in the race. In an outline of the European Commission’s strategy for 2019 to 2024, President Ursula von der Leyen said it will super charge Europe’s innovation in technology fields, including AI, to compete with the United States and China.

“Data and AI can help find solutions to many of society’s problems, from health to farming, from security to manufacturing,” according to the EU’s strategy. “This can only be achieved if technology is developed and used in ways that earns peoples’ trust. Therefore, an EU strategic framework based on fundamental values will give citizens the confidence to accept AI-based solutions, while encouraging businesses to develop them.”


The commission has set a goal of attracting more than €20 billion ($24 billion) in investment in AI over the next 10 years. It will also create a public-private partnership in AI and robotics, strengthen and connect AI research excellence centers, and have at least one digital innovation hub per member state specialized in AI.

Additionally, the commission plans to craft new proposals to foster trust in AI, including requirements that high-risk AI systems be transparent, traceable, and under human control.

In December 2020, EU member states and the European Parliament agreed on the Digital Europe Programme. It establishes €7.5 billion ($8.83 billion) in funding through 2027 for supercomputing, AI, cybersecurity, and advanced digital skills.

"The program is fine-tuned to fill the gap between the research of digital technologies and their deployment, and to bring the results of research to the market—for the benefit of Europe's citizens and businesses, and in particular small and medium-sized enterprises," according to a press release. "Investments under the Digital Europe Programme support the Union's twin objectives of a green transition and digital transformation and strengthen the Union's resilience and open strategic autonomy."


Despite its prominence on the world stage in cybersecurity, Russia only recently publicly entered the AI race. The country adopted the National Strategy for the Development of Artificial Intelligence Through 2030 in October 2019.

“Over the next 10 years, the strategy envisions Russia ramping up scientific research and development efforts, investing in software and hardware, and improving the availability and quality of data for AI technologies,” according to analysis by Margarita Konaev, research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. “Additionally, Russia seeks to educate, retain, and attract top quality AI talent while creating a favorable and flexible regulatory environment that will stimulate investment, research, development, testing, and integration of AI-based technologies and solutions into various sectors of Russian economy and society.”

Sberbank President German Gref led the initiative to adopt the strategy, and as of 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin had pledged to devote $6.1 billion towards it. The Russian government, however, will not be leading the implementation of the strategy. Instead, Sberbank and other private companies have formed the AI Russia Alliance to do that work.

“The alliance is expected to coordinate the efforts of the business and scientific communities to attain the objectives set forth in the national AI strategy,” according to Carnegie’s Moscow Center. “It can be concluded, therefore, that the driving force developing Russian AI technologies in the near future will be commercial—and that it will be large IT companies rather than start-ups.”

Konaev also pointed out that Russia’s strategy does not mention developing AI for national security or defense applications.

“This is a significant omission since the Russian defense establishment is pursuing advances in military robotics, unmanned systems, command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities where AI applications could have a meaningful impact,” she wrote.

The United Kingdom

Despite leaving the EU, the United Kingdom is adopting a similar approach to AI—upping its investment in the development of technology.

In the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy, published in March 2021, the UK government outlined that the world is moving into a digital and data-driven age that will open new frontiers.

“These future frontiers bring significant opportunity for future prosperity and well-being,” according to the review. “But they will be subject to intense competition, raising important questions about the interaction between economic opportunity, security and ethics, and the balance between the role of the state, businesses, and individuals.”

Because of this, Britain will need to remain influential in the development of new technologies—including AI—while protecting its intellectual property and maintaining a diplomatic framework for managing disagreements with China.

“The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies,” the UK review said. “China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy. China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.”

In March 2020, UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden named AI one of Britain’s top 10 technology priorities and pledged to release a National Artificial Intelligence Strategy later in 2021.

“Artificial intelligence has extraordinary potential to tackle some of the biggest challenges in science, society, and the economy,” said Sir Adrian Smith, chief executive and institute director of the Alan Turing Institute, about Dowden’s proposals. “But creating AI for public good, that brings societal benefit to all, and harnesses the UK’s considerable legacy. Expertise and innovation in this space requires collaboration and a shared vision.”

The United States

The United States remains at the forefront of development in AI with the largest investment market for privately held AI companies. As of 2019, Brookings analyzed that U.S. AI companies attracted roughly $25.2 billion in disclosed investments—of the nearly $40 billion invested globally.

In 2020, the U.S. federal government announced a $1 billion investment for multidisciplinary AI and quantum computing research hubs. And in January 2021, the Trump administration announced the creation of the National AI Initiative Office to implement a nationwide strategy for coordinating AI research and policymaking.

But this investment alone will not be enough to remain the leader in AI development, according to the NSCAI report.

“Today, the government is not organizing or investing to win the technology competition against a committed competitor, nor is it prepared to defend against AI-enabled threats and rapidly adopt AI applications for national security purposes,” the NSCAI commissioners wrote. “This is not a time for incremental toggles to federal research budget or adding a few new positions in the Pentagon for Silicon Valley technologists. This will be expensive and require a significant change in mindset. America needs White House leadership, Cabinet-member action, and bipartisan Congressional support to win in the AI era.”

Instead, the commission laid out two critical elements that the United States must include in a national strategy to reorganize the government and its allies to defend and compete in this new era.

The first element, “Defending America in the AI Era,” focuses on recommendations for preparing the United States to defend against AI application threats—including deepfakes and lethal drones.

“Defending against AI-capable adversaries operating at machine speeds without employing AI is an invitation to disaster,” the commission explained. “Human operators will not be able to keep up with or defend against AI-enabled cyber or disinformation attacks, drone swarms, or missile attacks without the assistance of AI-enabled machines. National security professionals must have access to the world’s best technology to protect themselves, perform their missions, and defend us.”

Among the specific recommendations from the commission are establishing foundations for widespread integration of AI in the U.S. Department of Defense by 2025; transforming the national intelligence community to adopt and integrate AI-enabled capabilities across all aspects of its work; and developing AI tools that enhance oversight and auditing to build public trust in AI for national security uses.

The second element, “Winning the Technology Competition,” focuses on recommendations for the United States to beat global competitors, including China, to retain its critical advantage in innovation and as a world leader.

“The race to research, develop, and deploy AI and associated technologies is intensifying the technology competition that underpins a wider strategic competition,” the commission wrote. “China is organized, resourced, and determined to win this contest. The United States retains advantages in critical areas, but current trends are concerning.”

To address these concerns, the commission recommends the White House issue a strategy for technology competition in AI; Congressional action to address deficiencies in the educational system to create a talent pipeline; and protect America’s technology advantages through modernizing export controls and foreign investment screening for critical dual-use technologies.

“This new era of competition promises to change the world we live in and how we live within it,” the commission concluded. “We can either shape the change or come to be swept along by it. We now know that the uses of AI in all aspects of life will grow and the pace of innovation will continue to accelerate. We know adversaries are determined to turn AI capabilities against us. We know China is determined to surpass us in AI leadership. We know advances in AI build on themselves and confer significant first-mover advantages. Now we must act.”

Megan Gates is editor-in-chief of Security Technology. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.