The Congressionally created National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) has completed its work and has submitted its final report recommendations to Congress on how the United States (U.S.) should change U.S. policy to extend the nation’s technological advantage to artificial intelligence (AI). The chair and vice chair’s cover letter flatly declares the NSCAI is “delivering an uncomfortable message: America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era.” They added:
And it is this reality that demands comprehensive, whole-of-nation action. Our final report presents a strategy to defend against AI threats, responsibly employ AI for national security, and win the broader technology competition for the sake of our prosperity, security, and welfare. The U.S. government cannot do this alone. It needs committed partners in industry, academia, and civil society. And America needs to enlist its oldest allies and new partners to build a safer and freer world for the AI era.
The commission was established a few years ago. The “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019” (P.L. 115-232) established “an independent Commission to review advances in artificial intelligence, related machine learning developments, and associated technologies.” The NSCAI has returned wide-ranging recommendations that reach across U.S. government, industry, academia, and society. It is unlikely many of these recommendations are ever implemented, but it is possible some of the lowest hanging fruit gets added to the FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Indeed, the NSCAI is seeking to make legislating as frictionless as possible by including legislation in one of the appendices the Armed Services Committees could merely lift and drop into the FY 2022 NDAA. The NSCAI also included draft executive orders for the White House to use also.
NSCAI stated that its final report presents “recommendations as a strategy for winning the AI era…[and] has provided as much specificity as possible—including by providing draft legislative text and executive orders— to help the President and Congress move rapidly from understanding AI to acting for the benefit of the American people.” The NSCAI is vowing, moreover, to “focus on implementation to help the President and Congress make the investments and take the actions recommended to win the AI era.” This latter development follows in the footsteps of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC), a new feature of commissions in that they live on past the submission of their final report, which is customarily the point at which they dissolve. However, both the NSCAI and CSC have both been extended by Congress and may well prove to be another cook in the policymaking kitchen on AI and cybersecurity policy respectively.
As a threshold matter, almost every person appointed to the NSCAI hails from what former President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Of the 15 Commissioners, only one lacks direct ties or does not work with an entity with direct ties to the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Intelligence Community (IC): former Federal Communications Commission acting Chair and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. However, as no lobbying registration records for her consulting confirm can be found, it is not clear whether she has any clients in the national security space. Nonetheless, the former head of Google and Alphabet chaired the NSCAI and senior executives from Amazon, Oracle, and Microsoft were named to the commission. Each of those companies do billions in dollars of business every year with the federal government, much of it in the national security space. This is relevant because it suggests a lack of diversity of viewpoint and perspectives, a claim often leveled at the technology field generally and at artificial intelligence, in particular, and many of its applications. This does not suggest bad faith or a concerted effort to exclude certain voices or viewpoints. Rather, it may be indicative of what has been called “man with a hammer” disease in that the broadly shared national security background may well carry broadly shared and unquestioned assumptions about the national security realm that have bled into the final report.
And to no great surprise, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is used as the foil and measuring stick against which current U.S. efforts are measured. This makes sense, for the PRC is pursuing breakthroughs in AI and may indeed be using AI in ways that outstrip the U.S. It is hard to tell given the dearth of U.S. intelligence assets in the PRC. But it also must be mentioned that the national security community’s assessments and predictions often prove wrong. Moreover, the U.S. is also theoretically competing with ostensible allies like the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) in leading AI development and reaping the national security and economic gains projected to accompany being the preeminent player in this field.
The NSCAI called for the establishment of “a Technology Competitiveness Council to build a strategy that accounts for the complex security, economic, and scientific challenges of AI and its associated technologies…[and] [t]hat leadership imperative extends into all critical national security departments and agencies.” The panel is also calling for “a new Digital Service Academy and civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers.” The NSCAI echoed the Biden White House’s recent call for $37 billion in funding for domestic semiconductor funding: “[t]he federal investment and incentives needed to revitalize domestic microchip fabrication—perhaps $35 billion— should be an easy decision when the alternative is relying on another country to produce the engines that power the machines that will shape the future” given Taiwan’s proximity to the PRC in light of the latter’s ambitions to absorb the former. The NSCAI also calls for:
The federal government must partner with U.S. companies to preserve American leadership and to support development of diverse AI applications that advance the national interest in the broadest sense. If anything, this report underplays the investments America will need to make. The $40 billion we recommend to expand and democratize federal AI research and development (R&D) is a modest down payment on future breakthroughs. We will also need to build secure digital infrastructure across the nation, shared cloud computing access, and smart cities to truly leverage AI for the benefit of all Americans. We envision hundreds of billions in federal spending in the coming years.
The NSCAI asserted two “convictions” about what is currently known about the importance of AI:
- First, the rapidly improving ability of computer systems to solve problems and to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence—and in some instances exceed human performance—is world altering. AI technologies are the most powerful tools in generations for expanding knowledge, increasing prosperity, and enriching the human experience. AI is also the quintessential “dual-use” technology. The ability of a machine to perceive, evaluate, and act more quickly and accurately than a human represents a competitive advantage in any field—civilian or military. AI technologies will be a source of enormous power for the companies and countries that harness them.
- Second, AI is expanding the window of vulnerability the United States has already entered. 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. Simultaneously, AI is deepening the threat posed by cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that Russia, China, and others are using to infiltrate our society, steal our data, and interfere in our democracy. The limited uses of AI-enabled attacks to date represent the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, global crises exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change highlight the need to expand our conception of national security and find innovative AI-enabled solutions.
The NSCAI summarized their recommendations and split them into two groupings: “Defending America in the AI Era” and “Winning the Technology Competition.” The NSCAI is calling for nothing less than a reordering of national security policies and funding to prepare for and win the AI competition. For better or for worse, these sorts of changes (e.g. the space race and post-September 11, 2001 changes) usually occur after a major event pushes policymakers to act and clears the way for systemic changes.
The NSCAI’s “Defending America in the AI Era” recommendations:
- Defend against emerging AI-enabled threats to America’s free and open society. Digital dependence in all walks of life is transforming personal and commercial vulnerabilities into potential national security weaknesses. Adversaries are using AI systems to enhance disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks. They are harvesting data on Americans to build profiles of their beliefs, behavior, and biological makeup for tailored attempts to manipulate or coerce individuals. This gathering storm of foreign influence and interference requires organizational and policy reforms to bolster our resilience. The government needs to stand up a task force and 24/7 operations center to confront digital disinformation. It needs to better secure its own databases and prioritize data security in foreign investment screening, supply chain risk management, and national data protection legislation. The government should leverage AI-enabled cyber defenses to protect against AI-enabled cyber attacks. And biosecurity must become a top-tier priority in national security policy.
- Prepare for future warfare. Our armed forces’ competitive military-technical advantage could be lost within the next decade if they do not accelerate the adoption of AI across their missions. This will require marrying top-down leadership with bottom-up innovation to put operationally relevant AI applications into place. The Department of Defense (DOD) should:
- First, establish the foundations for widespread integration of AI by 2025. This includes building a common digital infrastructure, developing a digitally-literate workforce, and instituting more agile acquisition, budget, and oversight processes. It also requires strategically divesting from military systems that are ill-equipped for AI-enabled warfare and instead investing in next-generation capabilities.
- Second, achieve a state of military AI readiness by 2025. Pentagon leadership must act now to drive organizational reforms, design innovative warfighting concepts, establish AI and digital readiness performance goals, and define a joint warfighting network architecture. DOD must also augment and focus its AI R&D portfolio. Readiness will also require promoting AI interoperability with allies and partners.
- Manage risks associated with AI-enabled and autonomous weapons. AI will enable new levels of performance and autonomy for weapon systems. But it also raises important legal, ethical, and strategic questions surrounding the use of lethal force. Provided their use is authorized by a human commander or operator, properly designed and tested AI- enabled and autonomous weapon systems can be used in ways that are consistent with international humanitarian law. DOD’s rigorous, existing weapons review and targeting procedures, including its dedicated protocols for autonomous weapon systems and commitment to strong AI ethical principles, are capable of ensuring that the United States will field safe and reliable AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems and use them in a lawful manner. While it is neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States to pursue a global prohibition of AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems, the global, unchecked use of such systems could increase risks of unintended conflict escalation and crisis instability. To reduce the risks, the United States should (1) clearly and publicly affirm existing U.S. policy that only human beings can authorize employment of nuclear weapons and seek similar commitments from Russia and China; (2) establish venues to discuss AI’s impact on crisis stability with competitors; and (3) develop international standards of practice for the development, testing, and use of AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems.
- Transform national intelligence. The Intelligence Community (IC) should adopt and integrate AI-enabled capabilities across all aspects of its work, from collection to analysis. Intelligence will benefit from AI more than any other national security mission. To capitalize on AI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence needs to empower and resource its science and technology leaders. The entire IC should leverage open-source and publicly available information in its analysis and prioritize collection of scientific and technical intelligence. For better insights, intelligence agencies will need to develop innovative approaches to human-machine teaming that use AI to augment human judgment.
- Scale up digital talent in government. National security agencies need more digital experts now or they will remain unprepared to buy, build, and use AI and associated technologies. The talent deficit in DOD and the IC represents the greatest impediment to being AI-ready by 2025. The government needs new talent pipelines, including a U.S. Digital Service Academy to train current and future employees. It needs a civilian National Digital Reserve Corps to recruit people with the right skills—including industry experts, academics, and recent college graduates. And it needs a Digital Corps, modeled on the Army Medical Corps, to organize technologists already serving in government.
- Establish justified confidence in AI systems. If AI systems routinely do not work as designed or are unpredictable in ways that can have significant negative consequences, then leaders will not adopt them, operators will not use them, Congress will not fund them, and the American people will not support them. To establish justified confidence, the government should focus on ensuring that its AI systems are robust and reliable, including through research and development (R&D) investments in AI security and advancing human-AI teaming through a sustained initiative led by the national research labs. It should also enhance DOD’s testing and evaluation capabilities as AI-enabled systems grow in number, scope, and complexity. Senior-level responsible AI leads should be appointed across the government to improve executive leadership and policy oversight.
- Present a democratic model of AI use for national security. AI tools are critical for U.S. intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement agencies. Public trust will hinge on justified assurance that government use of AI will respect privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights. The government must earn that trust and ensure that its use of AI tools is effective, legitimate, and lawful. This imperative calls for developing AI tools to enhance oversight and auditing, increasing public transparency about AI use, and building AI systems that advance the goals of privacy preservation and fairness. It also requires ensuring that those impacted by government actions involving AI can seek redress and have due process. The government should strengthen oversight and governance mechanisms and establish a task force to assess evolving concerns about AI and privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights.
The NSCAI’s “Winning the Technology Competition” recommendations:
- Organize with a White House–led strategy for technology competition. The United States must elevate AI considerations from the technical to the strategic level. Emerging technologies led by AI now underpin our economic prosperity, security, and welfare. The White House should establish a new Technology Competitiveness Council led by the Vice President to integrate security, economic, and scientific considerations; develop a comprehensive technology strategy; and oversee its implementation.
- Win the global talent competition. The United States risks losing the global competition for scarce AI expertise if it does not cultivate more potential talent at home and recruit and retain more existing talent from abroad. The United States must move aggressively on both fronts. Congress should pass a National Defense Education Act II to address deficiencies across the American educational system—from K-12 and job reskilling to investing in thousands of undergraduate- and graduate-level fellowships in fields critical to the AI future. At the same time, Congress should pursue a comprehensive immigration strategy for highly skilled immigrants to encourage more AI talent to study, work, and remain in the United States through new incentives and visa, green card, and job-portability reforms.
- Accelerate AI innovation at home. The government must make major new investments in AI R&D and establish a national AI research infrastructure that democratizes access to the resources that fuel AI development across the nation. The government should: (1) double non-defense funding for AI R&D annually to reach $32 billion per year by 2026, establish a National Technology Foundation, and triple the number of National AI Research Institutes; (2) establish a National AI Research Infrastructure composed of cloud computing resources, test beds, large-scale open training data, and an open knowledge network that will broaden access to AI and support experimentation in new fields of science and engineering; and (3) strengthen commercial competitiveness by creating markets for AI and by forming a network of regional innovation clusters.
- Implement comprehensive intellectual property (IP) policies and regimes. The United States must recognize IP policy as a national security priority critical for preserving America’s leadership in AI and emerging technologies. This is especially important in light of China’s efforts to leverage and exploit IP policies. The United States lacks the comprehensive IP policies it needs for the AI era and is hindered by legal uncertainties in current U.S. patent eligibility and patentability doctrine. The U.S. government needs a plan to reform IP policies and regimes in ways that are designed to further national security priorities.
- Build a resilient domestic base for designing and fabricating microelectronics. After decades leading the microelectronics industry, the United States is now almost entirely reliant on foreign sources for production of the cutting-edge semiconductors that power all the AI algorithms critical for defense systems and everything else. Put simply: the U.S. supply chain for advanced chips is at risk without concerted government action. Rebuilding domestic chip manufacturing will be expensive, but the time to act is now. The United States should commit to a strategy to stay at least two generations ahead of China in state-of-the-art microelectronics and commit the funding and incentives to maintain multiple sources of cutting-edge microelectronics fabrication in the United States.
- Protect America’s technology advantages. As the margin of U.S. technological advantage narrows and foreign efforts to acquire American know-how and dual-use technologies increase, the United States must reexamine how to best protect ideas, technology, and companies without unduly hindering innovation. The United States must:
- First, modernize export controls and foreign investment screening to better protect critical dual-use technologies—including by building regulatory capacity and fully implementing recent legislative reforms, implementing coordinated export controls on advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment with allies, and expanding disclosure requirements for investors from competitor nations.
- Second, protect the U.S. research enterprise as a national asset—by providing government agencies, law enforcement, and research institutions with tools and resources to conduct nuanced risk assessments and share information on specific threats and tactics, coordinating research protection efforts with allies and partners, bolstering cybersecurity support for research institutions, and strengthening visa vetting to limit problematic research collaborations.
- Build a favorable international technology order. The United States must work hand-in- hand with allies and partners to promote the use of emerging technologies to strengthen democratic norms and values, coordinate policies and investments to advance global adoption of digital infrastructure and technologies, defend the integrity of international technical standards, cooperate to advance AI innovation, and share practices and resources to defend against malign uses of technology and the influence of authoritarian states in democratic societies. The United States should lead an Emerging Technology Coalition to achieve these goals and establish a Multilateral AI Research Institute to enhance the United States’ position as a global research hub for emerging technology. The Department of State should be reoriented, reorganized, and resourced to lead diplomacy in emerging technologies.
- Win the associated technologies competitions. Leadership in AI is necessary but not sufficient for overall U.S. technological leadership. AI sits at the center of the constellation of emerging technologies, enabling some and enabled by others. The United States must therefore develop a single, authoritative list of the technologies that will underpin national competitiveness in the 21st century and take bold action to catalyze U.S. leadership in AI, microelectronics, biotechnology, quantum computing, 5G, robotics and autonomous systems, additive manufacturing, and energy storage technology. U.S. leadership across these technologies requires investing in specific platforms that will enable transformational breakthroughs and building vibrant domestic manufacturing ecosystems in each. At the same time, the government will need to continuously identify and prioritize emerging technologies farther over the horizon.
This is not the NSCAI’s first report. In late October 2020, the NSCAI sent its “its 2020 Interim Report and Third Quarter Recommendations“ to Congress and the Trump Administration ahead of the March 2021 due date for its final report. Notably, the NSCAI is calling for Congress and the White House to figure out which entity in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should lead and coordinate the U.S. AI efforts.
The NSCAI released its Second Quarter Recommendations in July 2020, a compilation of policy proposals made this quarter that:
The recommendations are not a comprehensive follow-up to the interim report or first quarter memorandum. They do not cover all areas that will be included in the final report. This memo spells out recommendations that can inform ongoing deliberations tied to policy, budget, and legislative calendars. But it also introduces recommendations designed to build a new framework for pivoting national security for the AI era.
In November 2019, the NSCAI released its interim report that “fulfills Congress’s request for the Commission’s preliminary assessment of these challenges and opportunities.” The Commission contended that “[i]t is an attempt to inform policy and public debate about how developments in AI are related to wider national security trends.” The Commission added that “[w]e are not yet in a position to make final recommendations, suggest major organizational changes, or propose specific investment priorities in rank order attached to dollar figures.” The Commission expressed its belief “that laying out the basic fundamentals, presenting some consensus guiding principles, and offering initial preliminary judgments will contribute to public debate as the Commission moves toward its final report.”
Additionally, the NSCAI released a series of white papers during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- “The first white paper, “Privacy and Ethics Recommendations for Computing Applications Developed to Mitigate COVID-19,” analyzed how computing applications can supplement the United States’ manual contact tracing efforts and recommends privacy and ethics considerations in developing and fielding these applications.
- The second white paper, “Mitigating Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Preserving U.S. Strategic Competitiveness in AI,” offered recommendations for using AI to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, and protecting AI and other emerging technologies as strategic assets and sources of U.S. and allied economic strength.
- A third white paper titled “The Role of AI Technology in Pandemic Response and Preparedness” that “outlines a series of investments and initiatives that the United States must undertake to realize the full potential of AI to secure our nation against pandemics.”