NATIONAL SECURITY COMMISSION ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FINAL REPORT
Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies promise to be the most powerful tools in generations for expanding knowledge, increasing prosperity, and enriching the human experience. The technologies will be the foundation of the innovation economy and a source of enormous power for countries that harness them. AI will fuel competition between governments and companies racing to field it. And it will be employed by nation-states to pursue their strategic ambitions.
Americans have not yet seriously grappled with how profoundly the AI revolution will impact society, the economy, and national security. Recent AI breakthroughs, such as a computer defeating a human in the popular strategy game of Go1, shocked other nations into action, but it did not inspire the same response in the United States. Despite our private-sector and university leadership in AI, the United States remains unprepared for the coming era. Americans must recognize the assertive role that the government will have to play in ensuring the United States wins this innovation competition. Congress and the President will have to support the scale of public resources required to achieve it.
The magnitude of the technological opportunity coincides with a moment of strategic vulnerability.
China is a competitor possessing the might, talent, and ambition to challenge America’s technological leadership, military superiority, and its broader position in the world. AI is deepening the threat posed by cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that Russia, China, and other state and non-state actors are using to infiltrate our society, steal our data, and interfere in our democracy.
The limited uses of AI-enabled attacks to date are the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, global crises exemplified in the global pandemic and climate change are expanding the definition of national security and crying out for innovative technological solutions. AI can help us navigate many of these new challenges.
We are fortunate.
The AI revolution is not a strategic surprise. We are experiencing its impact in our daily lives and can anticipate how research progress will translate into real-world applications before we have to confront the full national security ramifications. This commission can warn of national security challenges and articulate the benefits, rather than explain why previous warnings were ignored and opportunities were missed. We still have a window to make the changes to build a safer and better future. The pace of AI innovation is not flat; it is accelerating. If the United States does not act, it will likely lose its leadership position in AI to China in the next decade and become more vulnerable to a spectrum of AI-enabled threats from a host of state and non-state actors.
The Commission concludes that the United States needs to implement a strategy to defend and compete in the AI era. The White House must lead the effort to reorganize the government and reorient the nation. This report presents the core elements of the strategy.
Part I: Defending America in the AI Era
Chapters 1-8 outline what the United States must do to defend against the spectrum of AI-related threats from state and non-state actors and recommends how the U.S. government can responsibly use AI technologies to protect the American people and our interests.
Part II: Winning the Technology Competition
Chapters 9-16 outline AI’s role in a broader technology competition. Each chapter addresses a critical element of the competition and recommends actions the government must take to promote AI innovation to improve national competitiveness and protect critical U.S. advantages.
Why Does AI Matter?
In 1901, Thomas Edison was asked to predict electricity’s impact on humanity. Two decades after the development of the light bulb, he foresaw a general-purpose technology of unlimited possibilities. “[Electricity] is the field of fields,” he said. “It holds the secrets which will reorganize the life of the world.”2 AI is a very different kind of general-purpose technology, but we are standing at a similar juncture and see a similarly wide-ranging impact.3
The rapidly improving ability of computer systems to solve problems and to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence is transforming many aspects of human life and every field of science. It will be incorporated into virtually all future technology. The entire innovation base supporting our economy and security will leverage AI. How this “field of fields” is used—for good and for ill—will reorganize the world.
The Commission’s assessment is rooted in a realistic understanding of AI’s current state of development and a projection of how the technology will evolve.
AI is already ubiquitous in everyday life and the pace of innovation is accelerating.
We take for granted that AI already shapes our lives in ways small and big. A “smartphone” has multiple AI-enabled features including voice assistants, photo tagging, facial recognition security, search apps, recommendation and advertising engines, and less obvious AI enhancements in its operating system. AI is helping predict the spread and escalation of a pandemic outbreak, planning and optimizing the distribution of goods and services, monitoring traffic flow and safety, speeding up drug and therapeutic discovery, and automating routine office functions.
Recognizing the pace of change is critical to understanding the power of AI. The application of AI techniques to solve problems is compressing innovation timescales and turning once-fantastical ideas into realities across a range of disciplines.
Deploying and adopting AI remains a hard problem.
AI cannot magically solve problems. As AI moves from an elite niche science to a mainstream tool, engineering will be as important as scientific breakthroughs. Early adopters across sectors have learned similar lessons: Trying to employ AI is a slog even after the science is settled. Many of the most important real-world impacts will come from figuring out how to employ existing AI algorithms and systems, some more than a decade old.
The integration challenge is immense. Harnessing data, hardening and packaging laboratory algorithms so they are ready for use in the field, and adapting AI software to legacy equipment and rigid organizations all require time, effort, and patience. Integrating AI often necessitates overcoming substantial organizational and cultural barriers, and it demands top-down leadership.
AI tools are diffusing broadly and rapidly.
Cutting-edge deep learning techniques are often prohibitively expensive, requiring vast amounts of data, computing power, and specialized knowledge. However, AI will not be the provenance of only big states and big tech. Many machine learning tools that fuel AI applications are publicly available and usable even for non-experts. Open-source applications and development tools combined with inexpensive cloud computing and less data-intensive approaches are expanding AI opportunities across the world to state and non-state actors.
AI is changing relationships between humans and machines.
In modern society, we already rely much more on machines and automation than we may be aware. The U.S. military, for instance, has used autonomous systems for decades. However, as AI capabilities improve, the dynamics within human-machine “teams” will change. In the past, computers could only perform tasks that fell within a clearly defined set of parameters or rules programmed by a human. As AI becomes more capable, computers will be able to learn and perform tasks based on parameters that humans do not explicitly program, creating choices and taking actions at a volume and speed never before possible.
Across many fields of human activity, AI innovations are raising important questions about what choices to delegate to intelligent machines, in what circumstances, and for what reasons. In the national security sphere, these questions will take on greater significance as AI is integrated into defense and intelligence systems. Across our entire society, we will need to address these new complexities with nuanced approaches, intellectual curiosity, and care that recognizes the increasing ubiquity of AI.
AI for What Ends?
Technology and Values
The widespread adoption of AI by governments around the world is impacting not only the international order among states, but also the political order within them. The stakes of the AI future are intimately connected to the enduring contest between authoritarian and democratic political systems and ideologies.
Technology itself does not possess an ideology, but how it is designed, where it is employed, and which laws govern its use reflect the priorities and values of those who design and employ it. More AI-enabled surveillance and analysis capabilities will soon be in the hands of most or all governments. As the technology diffuses, the main difference between states will have less to do with the quality or sophistication of the technology and more to do with the way it is used—for what purpose, and under what rules.
Authoritarian regimes will continue to use AI-powered face recognition, biometrics, predictive analytics, and data fusion as instruments of surveillance, influence, and political control. China’s use of AI-powered surveillance technologies to repress its Uyghur minority and monitor all of its citizens foreshadows how authoritarian regimes will use AI systems to facilitate censorship, track the physical movements and digital activities of their citizens, and stifle dissent.4
The global circulation of these digital systems creates the prospect of a wider adoption of authoritarian governance. But liberal democracies also employ AI for internal security and public safety purposes. More than half of the world’s advanced democracies use AI-enabled surveillance systems.5 Such technologies have legitimate public purposes and are compatible with the rule of law. Yet in states edging toward illiberal practices, utilizing digital tools in ways that undermine the rule of law could tip the scales toward further democratic backsliding.
The preservation of individual liberties calls for continued vigilance. A responsible democracy must ensure that the use of AI by the government is limited by wise restraints to comport with the rights and liberties that define a free and open society.
The U.S. government should develop and field AI-enabled technologies with adequate transparency, strong oversight, and accountability to protect against misuse.
Merely stating U.S. opposition to the authoritarian use of AI is not enough. The United States must also demonstrate how a democracy should use AI to protect the security of its citizens in ways that uphold liberal democratic values. There is an urgent need to field AI for national security purposes against, for instance, foreign and domestic terrorists operating within our borders. There is also an enduring need to ensure that security applications of AI conform to core values of individual liberty and equal protection under law.
The United States must lead a coalition of democracies.
As we ensure that AI is developed and used in ways that are safe for democracy at home, we must also promote global norms to make its use safe for democracy abroad. While the U.S. government’s ability to influence the governance practices of other states is limited, a strong plank of the U.S. foreign policy agenda with respect to AI must be to promote human rights and counter techno-authoritarian trends. The United States can use diplomacy and leverage its global partnerships to advocate for establishing privacy-protecting technical standards and norms in international bodies, and it can work with like-minded nations to ensure that other nations have an alternative to embracing China’s technology and methods of social control and access to technologies that protect democratic values like privacy.
We do not seek a fragmented digital world. We want the United States and its allies to exist in a world with a diverse set of choices in digital infrastructure, e-commerce, and social media that will not be vulnerable to authoritarian coercion and that support free speech, individual rights, privacy, and tolerance for differing views.
We are at the beginning of the beginning of this new era of competition. We now know the uses of AI in all aspects of life will grow and the pace of innovation will accelerate. We know adversaries are determined to turn AI capabilities against us. We know a competitor is determined to surpass us in AI leadership. We know AI is accelerating breakthroughs in a wide array of fields. We know that whoever translates AI developments into applications first will have the advantage.
Now we must act.
The principles we establish, the federal investments we make, the national security applications we field, the organizations we redesign, the partnerships we forge, the coalitions we build, and the talent we cultivate will set America’s strategic course. The United States should invest what it takes to maintain its innovation leadership, to responsibly use AI to defend free people and free societies, and to advance the frontiers of science for the benefit of all humanity.
AI is going to reorganize the world. America must lead the charge.
1 The Google DeepMind Challenge Match, DeepMind (last accessed Jan. 7, 2021), https://deepmind.com/alphago-korea. 2 Quoted in Orison Swett Marden, How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves, Lothrop Publishing Co. at 238 (1901). 3 Andrew Ng is widely credited with making this comparison. See e.g., Shana Lynch, Andrew Ng: Why AI Is the New Electricity, Insights by Stanford Business (March 11, 2017), https://www.gsb.stanford. edu/insights/andrew-ng-why-ai-new-electricity.
4 See, e.g., Patrice Taddonio, How China’s Government Is Using AI on Its Uighur Muslim Population, PBS Frontline (Nov. 21, 2019), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-chinas-government-is-using-ai-on-its-uighur-muslim-population/; Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals for Mass Internment and Arrest by Algorithm, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (Nov. 24, 2019), https://www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/exposed-chinas-operating-manuals-for-mass-internment-and-arrest-by-algorithm/.
5 See Steven Feldstein, The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Sept. 2019), https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/09/17/global-expansion-of-ai-surveillance-pub-79847.