Created by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with its official purpose “to consider the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States.”
The NSCAI is a key part of the government’s response to what is often referred to as the coming “fourth industrial revolution,” which has been described as “a revolution characterized by discontinuous technological development in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), big data, fifth-generation telecommunications networking (5G), nanotechnology and biotechnology, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and quantum computing.”
However, their main focus is ensuring that “the United States … maintain a technological advantage in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other associated technologies related to national security and defense.” The vice-chair of NSCAI, Robert Work – former Deputy Secretary of Defense and senior fellow at the hawkish Center for a New American Security (CNAS), described the commission’s purpose as determining “how the U.S. national security apparatus should approach artificial intelligence, including a focus on how the government can work with industry to compete with China’s ‘civil-military fusion’ concept.”
A recently released NSCAI document obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) thorugh a FOIA request, is a May 2019 presentation entitled “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview.” Throughout the presentation, the NSCAI promotes the overhaul of the U.S. economy and way of life as necessary for allowing the U.S. to ensure it holds a considerable technological advantage over China, as losing this advantage is currently deemed a major “national security” issue by the U.S. national security apparatus. This concern about maintaining a technological advantage can be seen in several other U.S. military documents and think tank reports, several of which have warned that the U.S.’ technological advantage is quickly eroding.
The U.S. government and establishment media outlets often blame alleged Chinese espionage or the Chinese government’s more explicit partnerships with private technology companies in support of their claim that the U.S. is losing this advantage over China. For instance, Chris Darby, the current CEO of the CIA’s In-Q-Tel, who is also on the NSCAI, told CBS News last year that China is the U.S.’ main competitor in terms of technology and that U.S. privacy laws were hampering the U.S.’ capacity to counter China in this regard, stating that:
“[D]ata is the new oil. And China is just awash with data. And they don’t have the same restraints that we do around collecting it and using it, because of the privacy difference between our countries. This notion that they have the largest labeled data set in the world is going to be a huge strength for them.”
“It’s quite clear, though, that China is determined to erase our technological advantage, and is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to this effort. In particular, China is determined to be a world leader in such areas as artificial intelligence, high performance computing, and synthetic biology. These are the industries that will shape life on the planet and the military balance of power for the next several decades.”
In fact, the national security apparatus of the United States is so concerned about losing a technological edge over China that the Pentagon recently decided to join forces directly with the U.S. intelligence community in order “to get in front of Chinese advances in artificial intelligence.” This union resulted in the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which ties together “the military’s efforts with those of the Intelligence Community, allowing them to combine efforts in a breakneck push to move government’s AI initiatives forward.” It also coordinates with other government agencies, industry, academics, and U.S. allies. Robert Work, who subsequently became the NSCAI vice-chair, said at the time that JAIC’s creation was a “welcome first step in response to Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Russian, plans to dominate these technologies.”
Similar concerns about “losing” technological advantage to China have also been voiced by the NSCAI chairman, Eric Schmidt, the former head of Alphabet – Google’s parent company, who argued in February in the New York Times that Silicon Valley could soon lose “the technology wars” to China if the U.S. government doesn’t take action. Thus, the three main groups represented within the NSCAI – the intelligence community, the Pentagon and Silicon Valley – all view China’s advancements in AI as a major national security threat (and in Silicon Valley’s case, threat to their bottom lines and market shares) that must be tackled quickly.
In the May 2019 “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview” presentation, the NSCAI discusses that, while the U.S. still leads in the “creation” stage of AI and related technologies, it lags behind China in the “adoption” stage due to “structural factors.” It says that “creation”, followed by “adoption” and “iteration” are the three phases of the “life cycle of new tech” and asserts that failing to dominate in the “adoption” stage will allow China to “leapfrog” the U.S. and dominate AI for the foreseeable future.
The presentation also argues that, in order to “leapfrog” competitors in emerging markets, what is needed is not “individual brilliance” but instead specific “structural conditions that exist within certain markets.” It cites several case studies where China is considered to be “leapfrogging” the U.S. due to major differences in these “structural factors.” Thus, the insinuation of the document (though not directly stated) is that the U.S. must alter the “structural factors” that are currently responsible for its lagging behind China in the “adoption” phase of AI-driven technologies.
Chief among the troublesome “structural factors” highlighted in this presentation are so-called “legacy systems” that are common in the U.S. but much less so in China. The NSCAI document states that examples of “legacy systems” include a financial system that still utilizes cash and card payments, individual car ownership and even receiving medical attention from a human doctor. It states that, while these “legacy systems” in the US are “good enough,” too many “good enough” systems “hinder the adoption of new things,” specifically AI-driven systems.
Another structural factor deemed by the NSCAI to be an obstacle to the U.S.’ ability to maintain a technological advantage over China is the “scale of the consumer market,” arguing that “extreme urban density = on-demand service adoption.” In other words, extreme urbanization results in more people using online or mobile-based “on-demand” services, ranging from ride-sharing to online shopping. It also cites the use of mass surveillance on China’s “huge population base” is an example of how China’s “scale of consumer market” advantage allowing “China to leap ahead” in the fields of related technologies, like facial recognition.
In addition to the alleged shortcomings of the U.S.’ “legacy systems” and lack of “extreme urban density,” the NSCAI also calls for more “explicit government support and involvement” as a means to speed up the adoption of these systems in the U.S. This includes the government lending its stores of data on civilians to train AI, specifically citing facial recognition databases, and mandating that cities be “re-architected around AVs [autonomous vehicles],” among others. Other examples given include the government investing large amounts of money in AI start-ups and adding tech behemoths to a national, public-private AI taskforce focused on smart city-implementation (among other things).
With regards to the latter, the document says “this level of public-private cooperation” in China is “outwardly embraced” by the parties involved, with this “serving as a stark contrast to the controversy around Silicon Valley selling to the U.S. government.” Examples of such controversy, from the NSCAI’s perspective, likely include Google employees petitioning to end the Google-Pentagon “Project Maven,” which uses Google’s AI software to analyze footage captured by drones. Google eventually chose not to renew its Maven contract as a result of the controversy, even though top Google executives viewed the project as a “golden opportunity” to collaborate more closely with the military and intelligence communities.
The document also defines another aspect of government support as the “clearing of regulatory barriers.” This term is used in the document specifically with respect to U.S. privacy laws, despite the fact that the U.S. national security state has long violated these laws with near complete impunity. However, the document seems to suggest that privacy laws in the U.S. should be altered so that what the U.S. government has done “in secret” with private citizen data can be done more openly and more extensively. The NSCAI document also discusses the removal of “regulatory barriers” in order to speed up the adoption of self-driving cars, even though autonomous driving technology has resulted in several deadly and horrific car accidents and presents other safety concerns.
Also discussed is how China’s “adoption advantage” will “allow it to leapfrog the U.S.” in several new fields, including “AI medical diagnosis” and “smart cities.” It then asserts that “the future will be decided at the intersection of private enterprise and policy leaders between China and the U.S.” If this coordination over the global AI market does not occur, the document warns that “we [the U.S.] risk being left out of the discussions where norms around AI are set for the rest of our lifetimes.”
The presentation also dwells considerably on how “the main battleground [in technology] are not the domestic Chinese and US markets,” but what it refers to as the NBU (next billion users) markets, where it states that “Chinese players will aggressively challenge Silicon Valley.” In order to challenge them more successfully, the presentation argues that, “just like we [view] the market of teenagers as a harbinger for new trends, we should look at China.”
The document also expresses concerns about China exporting AI more extensively and intensively than the U.S., saying that China is “already crossing borders” by helping to build facial databases in Zimbabwe and selling image recognition and smart city systems to Malaysia. If allowed to become “the unambiguous leader in AI,” it says that “China could end up writing much of the rulebook of international norms around the deployment of AI” and that it would “broaden China’s sphere of influence amongst an international community that increasingly looks to the pragmatic authoritarianism of China and Singapore as an alternative to Western liberal democracy.”
Given that the document makes it quite clear that “legacy systems” in the U.S. are impeding its ability to prevent China from “leapfrogging” ahead in AI and then dominating it for the foreseeable future, it is also important to examine what the document suggests should replace these “legacy systems” in the U.S.
As previously mentioned, one “legacy system” cited early on in the presentation is the main means of payment for most Americans, cash and credit/debit cards. The presentation asserts, in contrast to these “legacy systems” that the best and most advanced system is moving entirely to smartphone-based digital wallets.
It notes specifically the main mobile wallet provider in India, PayTM, is majority owned by Chinese companies. It quotes an article, which states that “a big break came [in 2016] when India canceled 86% of currency in circulation in an effort to cut corruption and bring more people into the tax net by forcing them to use less cash.” At the time, claims that India’s 2016 “currency reform” would be used as a stepping stone towards a cashless society were dismissed by some as “conspiracy theory.” However, last year, a committee convened by India’s central bank (and led by an Indian tech oligarch who also created India’s massive civilian biometric database) resulted in the Indian government’s “Cashless India” program.
Regarding India’s 2016 “currency reform,” the NSCAI document then asserts that “this would be unfathomable in the West. And unsurprisingly, when 86% of the cash got cancelled and nobody had a credit card, mobile wallets in India exploded, laying the groundwork for a far more advanced payments ecosystem in India than the US.” However, it has become increasingly less unfathomable in light of the current coronavirus crisis, which has seen efforts to reduce the amount of cash used because paper bills may carry the virus as well as efforts to introduce a Federal Reserve-backed “digital dollar.”
In addition, the NSCAI document from last May calls for the end of in-person shopping and promotes moving towards all shopping being performed online. It argues that “American companies have a lot to gain by adopting ideas from Chinese companies” by shifting towards exclusive e-commerce purchasing options. It states that only shopping online provides a “great experience” and also adds that “when buying online is literally the only way to get what you want, consumers go online.”
Another “legacy system” that the NSCAI seeks to overhaul is car ownership, as it promotes autonomous, or self-driving vehicles and further asserts that “fleet ownership > individual ownership.” It specifically points to a need for “a centralized ride-sharing network,” which it says “is needed to coordinate cars to achieve near 100% utilization rates.” However, it warns against ride-sharing networks that “need a human operator paired with each vehicle” and also asserts that “fleet ownership makes more sense” than individual car ownership. It also specifically calls for these fleets to not only be composed of self-driving cars, but electric cars and cites reports that China “has the world’s most aggressive electric vehicle goals….and seek[s] the lead in an emerging industry.”
The document states that China leads in ride-sharing today even though ride-sharing was pioneered first in the U.S. It asserts once again that the U.S. “legacy system” of individual car ownership and lack of “extreme urban density” are responsible for China’s dominance in this area. It also predicts that China will “achieve mass autonomous [vehicle] adoption before the U.S.,” largely because “the lack of mass car ownership [in China] leads to far more consumer receptiveness to AVs [autonomous vehicles].” It then notes that “earlier mass adoption leads to a virtuous cycle that allows Chinese core self-driving tech to accelerate beyond [its] Western counterparts.”
In addition to their vision for a future financial system and future self-driving transport system, the NSCAI has a similarly dystopian vision for surveillance. The document calls mass surveillance “one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for AI” and “a killer application for deep learning.” It also states that “having streets carpeted with cameras is good infrastructure.”
It then discusses how “an entire generation of AI unicorn” companies are “collecting the bulk of their early revenue from government security contracts” and praises the use of AI in facilitating policing activities. For instance, it lauds reports that “police are making convictions based on phone calls monitored with iFlyTek’s voice-recognition technology” and that “police departments are using [AI] facial recognition tech to assist in everything from catching traffic law violators to resolving murder cases.”
On the point of facial recognition technology specifically, the NSCAI document asserts that China has “leapt ahead” of the US on facial recognition, even though “breakthroughs in using machine learning for image recognition initially occurred in the US.” It claims that China’s advantage in this instance is because they have government-implemented mass surveillance (“clearing of regulatory barriers”), enormous government-provided stores of data (“explicit government support”) combined with private sector databases on a huge population base (“scale of consumer market”). As a consequence of this, the NSCAI argues, China is also set to leap ahead of the U.S. in both image/facial recognition and biometrics.
The document also points to another glaring difference between the U.S. and its rival, stating that: “In the press and politics of America and Europe, Al is painted as something to be feared that is eroding privacy and stealing jobs. Conversely, China views it as both a tool for solving major macroeconomic challenges in order to sustain their economic miracle, and an opportunity to take technological leadership on the global stage.”
The NSCAI document also touches on the area of healthcare, calling for the implementation of a system that seems to be becoming reality thanks to the current coronavirus crisis. In discussing the use of AI in healthcare (almost a year before the current crisis began), it states that “China could lead the world in this sector” and “this could lead to them exporting their tech and setting international norms.” One reason for this is also that China has “far too few doctors for the population” and calls having enough doctors for in-person visits a “legacy system.” It also cited U.S. regulatory measures such as “HIPPA compliance and FDA approval” as obstacles that don’t constrain Chinese authorities.
More troubling, it argues that “the potential impact of government supplied data is even more significant in biology and healthcare,” and says it is likely that “the Chinese government [will] require every single citizen to have their DNA sequenced and stored in government databases, something nearly impossible to imagine in places as privacy conscious as the U.S. and Europe.” It continues by saying that “the Chinese apparatus is well-equipped to take advantage” and calls these civilian DNA databases a “logical next step.”
Given the sweeping changes to the U.S. that the NSCAI promoted in this presentation last May, it becomes important to examine who makes up the commission and to consider their influence over U.S. policy on these matters, particularly during the current crisis. As previously mentioned, the chairman of the NSCAI is Eric Schmidt, the former head of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) who has also invested heavily in Israeli intelligence-linked tech companies including the controversial start-up “incubator” Team8. In addition, the committee’s vice-chair is Robert Work, is not only a former top Pentagon official, but is currently working with the think tank CNAS, which is run by John McCain’s long-time foreign policy adviser and Joe Biden’s former national security adviser.
Other members of the NSCAI are as follows:
- Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, with close ties to Trump’s top donor Sheldon Adelson
- Steve Chien, supervisor of the Artificial Intelligence Group at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab
- Mignon Clyburn, Open Society Foundation fellow and former FCC commissioner
- Chris Darby, CEO of In-Q-Tel (CIA’s venture capital arm)
- Ken Ford, CEO of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
- Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University and former National Science Board member
- Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research Labs
- Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services (CIA contractor)
- Gilman Louie, partner at Alsop Louie Partners and former CEO of In-Q-Tel
- William Mark, director of SRI International and former Lockheed Martin director
- Jason Matheny, director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, former Assistant director of National Intelligence and former director of IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency)
- Katharina McFarland, consultant at Cypress International and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition
- Andrew Moore, head of Google Cloud AI
As can be seen in the list above, there is a considerable amount of overlap between the NSCAI and the companies currently advising the White House on “re-opening” the economy (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Lockheed Martin, Oracle) and one NSCAI member, Oracle’s Safra Katz, is on the White House’s “economic revival” taskforce. Also, there is also overlap between the NSCAI and the companies that are intimately involved in the implementation of the “contact tracing” “coronavirus surveillance system,” a mass surveillance system promoted by the Jared Kushner-led, private-sector coronavirus task force. That surveillance system is set to be constructed by companies with deep ties to Google and the U.S. national security state, and both Google and Apple, who create the operating systems for the vast majority of smartphones used in the U.S., have said they will now build that surveillance system directly into their smartphone operating systems.