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Tech Leaders Warn the U.S. Military Is Falling Behind China on AI

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Tech leaders and AI experts on Tuesday warned that the U.S. military needs to move quickly to harness its military data and invest in emerging technology if it wants to compete with the Chinese in an era when artificial intelligence is upending global conflict.

“The country that is able to most rapidly and effectively integrate new technology into war-fighting wins,” Alexandr Wang, the CEO of Scale AI, told lawmakers on a House Armed Services subcommittee. China is spending three times more than the U.S. on developing AI tools, Wang noted. “The Chinese Communist Party deeply understands the potential for AI to disrupt warfare, and is investing heavily to capitalize,” he said. “AI is China’s Apollo project.”

Wang, who runs a San Francisco-based generative AI startup, pressed for the Pentagon to centralize data to train AI models and upgrade its workforce to compete. He was part of a panel testifying before the HASC’s Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems Subcommittee, which was created in 2021 to focus on artificial intelligence and the future of warfare. The hearing was the latest in a growing number of public conversations about how Congress can catch up with the quickly evolving technology.

Read More: OpenAI Lobbied E.U. to Water Down AI Regulation.

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The sudden emergence and widespread adoption of popular AI tools like ChatGPT has underlined Capitol Hill’s sluggish response. In recent months, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of bills and proposals meant to address everything from data privacy to government’s use of AI, even raising the prospect of an AI-focused federal agency designed to regulate the nascent technology.

AI can be a “national security lifeline” for the U.S., Klon Kitchen, a former CIA officer who is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told lawmakers. “The United States has an opportunity to surge ahead of Beijing if we are aggressive and deliberate.”

Experts and entrepreneurs in the burgeoning field have become sought-after translators for an aging Congress. Wang, 26, dropped out of MIT at 19 and built Scale AI by focusing on data annotation, outsourcing the human task of labeling images and videos to train AI programs. ScaleAI relies on more than 240,000 workers in countries including Kenya, Venezuela, and the Philippines. The company, now valued at more than $7 billion, has made him the youngest self-made billionaire in the world.

Wang has also cultivated ties to lawmakers, especially those who share his hawkish views on China. “If they win this competition,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the committee, said of China at Tuesday’s hearing, they “will likely use that technology for evil as a way of perfecting a repressive, totalitarian surveillance state as well as exporting that model around the world.”

Read More: AI Is As Risky As Nuclear War, Top CEOs Say.

Wang has twice briefed the members of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, and speaks in terms that resonate with and echo them, casting the AI race as a patriotic battle between “democratic values” and an authoritarian regime. It’s a pitch that has made him a popular government partner: Scale AI lists the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Pentagon’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office among its clients.

On Tuesday, Wang said his company was working with the U.S. government to annotate vast troves of data and develop a data engine to support the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle Program. In 2022, the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center awarded Scale AI a $249 million deal to develop machine-learning platforms. Scale AI says it has begun deploying a large language model called Donovan in a partnership with the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com