Being Cognizant of our AI Sputnik Moment

Written on November 3, 2017 - 7 minutes read

The phrase “Sputnik moment” is a reference to the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, by Sergei Korolyov for the Soviet Union, and the subsequent American existential fear of the technological gap between the United States and the aforementioned that ignited the Space Race to put a man on the moon. It’s a phrase that is nowadays commonly used to describe the United States’ need to keep pace with the rapid development of other countries. Some examples include the 1973 OPEC oil crisis which spurred a greater interest in renewable energy, nuclear power, and domestic fossil fuel, and the rise of Japan as a superpower in the 1980s leading to several realignments in U.S. economic and trade policies.

Today, the “Sputnik moment” is coming from China’s rapid growth as an economic and technological superpower. In 2017 alone, China has outpaced the United States in renewable energy efforts and has become the standard-bearer in combatting climate change and advocacy for globalization. Similarly, China is rapidly moving towards taking the lead in technology from the United States, and is looking at quantum computing and artificial intelligence as areas for growth to do so.

The Verge recently published an article citing Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt’s perspective that the United States is falling behind when it comes to research and development in Artficial Intelligence (AI), particularly with respect to the rapid pace of innovation that China has adopted for its ambitions of being a global leader in the field. Schmidt, who is also the Chair of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, gave this as part of a discussion at The Artificial Intelligence and Global Security Summit held by The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a nonprofit think tank dedicated to research and analysis on how the United States makes informed policymaking decisions on national security and defense.

You can watch the recorded session below:

The advancement and integration of AI has been commonly identified as the motivating factor for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As stated in the previously linked article by Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, AI will redefine economies and systems of production, management, and governance similarly to how water/steam power, electric power, and electronics/digital technology have, and will engender implications on a global and societal level.

Both the progress of electronics/information technology and AI have an unprecedented velocity and scope of impact. Current breakthroughs in the field of computing enable a breadth and depth of influence that put our socioeconomic and political systems in a continuing state of reaction. The adoption of mobile devices, the internet, and social media are examples of Third Industrial Revolution innovations that influence our intra- and interpersonal experiences, and those experiences can vary in scale and context ranging from how personalities, behavior, and conditions such as depression are augmented by perceived social constructs for online communication on social media and mobile devices to the current hearings on how Russian-financed ads have pervasively polarized the American opinion through online platforms. Beyond that, we are seeing lateral emerging developments in autonomous vehicles, immersive realities, the Internet of Things, cryptocurrency, and quantum computing among other fields.

AI can be overlaid on top of these technologies and redefine our interactions and relationships with these experiences, which speaks to its potential and the points of concern that Schmidt has brought up. The Defense Innovation Advisory Board, set up by Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in 2016 as an independent discretionary advisory group on best practice strategies for defense and national security, has so far pushed forward despite uncertainty under the Trump Administration, and has made interim recommendations including the identification of a Department of Defense chief innovation officer, establishing a career track for computer science in the military, boosting cybsecurity for advanced weapons, and creating an institute for AI and machine learning research among others.

Given the current political ebb and flow, this may not be enough. In July 08, 2017, China released the State Council’s policies on the development of AI initiatives, with a target of becoming the world leader in the field by 2030. These plans specifically state that AI will become the new focus of international competition, the new engine of economic expansion, and will enable new opportunities for social construction and quality of life for the people. Even with the United States’ lead on intelligence amplification, intelligent manufacturing, “Internet+” AI, and other research and application initiatives, China has made important progress towards mitigating that gap with their number of international scientific publications and patented inventions being ranked as second in the world, as well as strides in voice/visual recognition technology, adapting autonomous learning, intuitive perception, and mixed/group intelligence efforts. With a clearly delineated directive that identifies their ideology, strategic objectives, resources, and implementation details, China is globally well-situated to meet that ambition with the backing of its technology business giants, research, and military.

In the United States, our directives regarding AI are less clear and are blocked by other policies such as restrictive immigration that cripples our ability to attract overseas talent. In addition, Schmidt believes that the focus of concern should be on defining a clear strategy for AI as opposed to regulation, as the latter should not be a hindrance in defining a strategy that involves government and private industry.

There is also a failure to address basic funding for research and development, which has been slowly increasing as a portion of the national GDP. This R&D total includes money spent by government, non-profit, and business entities on science, with 70% of American companies making up the total investment as of 2015. But while the United States is currently leading in dollars invested in research, China may likely outpace that in the coming years.

Percentage-wise, other countries invest more into research and development than the United States, signaling a higher economic valuation for investment.

This isn’t to say that there are no actions that are already underway. On October 2016, National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) defined two articles related to AI:

  • Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, which surveys the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the questions that it raises for society and public policy.
  • The National Artificial Intelligence R&D Strategic Plan, which establishes a set of objects and priorities for Federally-funded AI research, including identification of beneficial long-term investments, effective methods for human-AI collaboration, and better understanding of the ethical, legal, and social implications of this technology among others.

Whether or not these are being adhered to under the current administration remains to be seen.

Given the nation’s current standing, The United States has an opportunity to stay ahead and not get left behind. As Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence states, “current levels of R&D spending are half to one-quarter of the level of R&D investment that would produce the optimal level of economic growth”, and doing so requires a degree of self-awareness of the global economy surrounding AI and a drive towards advancing the breadth of innovators and innovations in the country. This is critical towards maintaining the United States’ position as a leading innovator on the global stage, particularly given that AI will be a fundamental driving force for large-scale change in our socioeconomic and political systems. As Brian Fung mentions in his Washington Post article, “Becoming a leader in artificial-intelligence research and development puts the United States in a better position to establish global norms on how AI should be used safely. When AI standards to transform virtually everything including labor, the environment, and the future of warfare and cyberconflict, the United States could be put at an disadvantage if other countries, such as China, get to dictate terms instead.”

UPDATE: Read the article on Medium or on VentureBeat.