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- Andy Jassy other tech CEOs warned of China’s rise in an AI report to Biden and Congress.
- The report comes as Congress pressures Biden to act on China, looking to Silicon Valley for guidance.
- The tech industry benefits from greater government investment in R&D and faster IT buying processes.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), a commission created by Congress under President Trump to advise government on artificial intelligence for national security purposes in 2018, submitted its final report to President Joe Biden and Congress on Monday.
In that report, the commission recommended the government take “bold action” to maintain the country’s technological edge over China by establishing a Technology Competitiveness Council led by the Vice President, investing in talent and hardware manufacturing, and doubling funding for R&D, eventually reaching $32 billion annually by 2026.
As the country’s AI talent and resources have moved to Silicon Valley, the commission’s goal hinged on tapping the tech industry’s expertise for guidance on how to keep America competitive.
Its members include top Silicon Valley execs like incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt (the commission’s chairman), Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Microsoft chief scientific officer Eric Horvitz, and Google Cloud AI head Andrew Moore. The commission received $10 million in funding, according to its charter, and will be dissolved in October under the current plan.
“We’ve been doing this for two years, and our two-year effort is essentially over in trying to understand the impact of AI on America’s national security,” Schmidt said at the commission’s public meeting in February.
The execs received classified and unclassified briefings over those two years, and have warned repeatedly that as China stated it plans to become a global AI leader by 2030, time is running out. At a commission meeting that came only a week before he was named the next CEO of Amazon, Jassy echoed those concerns.
“Right now it’s not like the US has a generation or two advantage and we want to maintain two generation advantages over China, we’re behind,” he said at the time. “In the US we’re behind now, by a generation or two.”
Their warnings dovetail with that of Erdal Arikan, inventor of the 5G data transmission standard, who said last year that China’s lead in 5G would give rise to the next generation of trillion-dollar tech companies, all based in China instead of Silicon Valley. Huawei, the Chinese leader in 5G hardware, has sponsored Arikan’s research.
Yet the rhetoric around China’s rise is not new for Silicon Valley’s Washington efforts, with tech leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in response to potential antitrust regulation, telling lawmakers to consider China’s model for the internet as a threat to American values.
Congress has increasingly looked to Silicon Valley for help on tech
Heather Roff, a contributor to the NSCAI report and senior research analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, told Insider earlier this year that groups like the commission do determine defense funding priorities, especially when it comes to emerging technology like artificial intelligence.
“There’s back and forth between lobbyists on the Hill and with people at external entities like the National Security Commission on AI,” Roff said. “Those get taken up into the defense budget as well. So there’s this kind of trifecta between experts, Department of Defense, the Hill and the White House.”
Chris Meserole, director of research and policy for the Brookings Institution’s Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative, told Insider that he expected the report to carry some weight because “the NSCAI’s commissioners are all very substantial people in DC and Silicon Valley circles.” “I think that’ll kind of set the agenda to some extent about what the Biden team will look to do on AI specifically,” he said.
Experts also said it seems likely Biden will continue the previous administration’s stance on advancing AI for national security. “I see the Biden administration Defense Department as interested in carrying on some of that third offset, that AI-forward strategy, that to be fair, the Trump administration was fully on board with,” said Chris Cornillie, a federal technology market analyst at Bloomberg Government.
The NSCAI, whose final report is hundreds of pages, will be watching closely for Biden and Congress’s next moves. Schmidt, in a February commission meeting, said, “I think we collectively as a commission, feel very strongly that the entirety of the report needs to be adopted. You can’t just piece-part it.”
Things have indeed started moving. Last week, Senator Chuck Schumer called on lawmakers to draft legislation to defend against China by boosting federal investment in 5G, AI, and quantum computing. Democrats and Republicans have already urged Biden to come up with a plan to counter China’s rising influence — a key component of which will likely impact the tech sector. Other leaders like acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel have similarly raised the alarm over 5G, and the defense community has long issued warnings about China’s rise.
Schmidt, in response to questions during a January commission meeting, said he was aware Biden was working on a China strategy, and said he believed the commission’s recommendations would be implemented “in the context of a China strategy.”
Cloud giants, Google, benefit from government AI investment
Underpinning the commission and its report is the recognition that “for America to remain competitive, particularly with China, the US government and our allies are gonna have to work closely and in concert with the private sector in Silicon Valley,” Meserole said.
Among the recommendations from the report, many include greater public-private partnership, which is potentially a boon for big tech companies. For example, it calls for keeping AI resources within the private sector with a “garage-startup mentality,” but also forging a “hybrid approach meshing government and private-sector efforts to win the technology competition.”
Similarly, analysts have called out AI as a major driver of cloud adoption in the federal government, especially in defense. The JEDI cloud contract, for example, a $10 billion Defense Department deal awarded to Microsoft but currently under legal protest by Amazon, was partially intended for building up the department’s AI capabilities.
“One of the things that’s driving our forecast for software-as-a-service, which is the desire to use AI, is going to drive spending and also investments,” said Alex Rossino, a senior principal research analyst at government contracting research firm Deltek.
Microsoft President Brad Smith also underscored the threat from China and issued a call for revamping the contract protest process in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week — a move that would advance its JEDI contract tied up by Amazon’s protests. “We have literally been frozen by a federal court on our performance on the JEDI contract for more than 12 months,” Smith said.
As the government’s current procurement is notoriously slow, streamlined tech buying helps any company vying for government business. Still, a focus on faster AI procurement could uniquely benefit Google, analysts said. AI was already a priority for the Defense Department, but it recently shifted strategy from building its own AI to enabling faster buying from the private sector. Cornillie previously told Insider that Google views its AI proficiency as helping open the door to new cloud contracts — taking a “if you want AI capabilities out of the box, it works best in our cloud” approach.
At the same time, concerns have been raised that a group which directly influences lawmakers and the President is made up of tech executives and government contractors. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Oracle, all submitted bids for the JEDI contract, among other cloud deals. During Monday’s commission meeting, Horvitz and Moore, of Microsoft and Google respectively, said they’d abstained from the report’s chapters pertaining to public-private partnership. Meanwhile, in response to a lawsuit from the nonprofit civil liberties group the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the commission was ordered to be more transparent with the public last summer.
Still, tech execs are forging ahead. On Monday, in one of his first public comments since being named the next Amazon CEO, Jassy reiterated his support for the commission and Congressional backing.
“I really hope that Congress deeply considers the report and its recommendations,” he said, “There’s meaningful urgency to get moving on these needs. It’s important to realize that you can’t just flip a switch and have these capabilities in place, it takes steady, committed hard work over a long period of time to bring these capabilities to fruition. All of us I know are eager to get going on these recommendations and to help in whatever way we can.”