Illustration by TIME; reference image: Win McNamee—Getty Images

Eric Schmidt, who served as Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, has spent the past decade pushing for urgency in AI research and development as a liaison between Silicon Valley and the slow-moving U.S. national-security community. He is the co-founder of Schmidt Futures, a science- and technology-focused philanthropic initiative, and recently served as the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

Schmidt spoke to TIME about America’s precarious lead in the AI race with China, how he uses AI tools in his own life, and why we’re not ready for how this technology will transform war, science, politics, and society itself. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

TIME: How is the current moment in AI different from what you would have predicted five years ago?

Eric Schmidt: I think the tech industry is pretty good at predicting the broad theme, but very bad at predicting exactly how it will happen. The question is, what are the next discoveries? I used to say that [general intelligence] was achievable in 20 years. I think it’s now 10 years. The level of innovation I’m seeing now is stronger than I’ve ever seen in my entire life by orders of magnitude. I’ve been through timesharing and the PC industry, the web revolution, the Unix revolution, and Linux, and Facebook, and Google. And this is growing faster than the sum of all of them.

How will AI impact politics and the upcoming 2024 election?

I think the 2024 elections globally are going to be very difficult. You have this very large election in India, you have elections in many other democracies, and I don’t think that social media companies are ready for it. The deluge of fake videos, fake pictures, the ability to voicecast—I just don’t think we’re ready. And the solutions are pretty straightforward. You need to know who your users are and where the content came from. And that then allows you to begin to figure out who is filling your platform with terrible stuff.

How are you using AI tools in your own life?

I had to write a memo to [President Biden] on AI, and I don’t write very well. So I wrote my little memo, and then I sent it to GPT-4, which rewrote it. The command was “rewrite this memo, don’t change the math.” And what I realized is that I want a system that is kind of making everything that I do better: if I want to sing, it makes me sing better; if I want to write it makes me write better; if I want to make a choice on what to read or how to entertain myself, I want it to make a recommendation. I want a very sophisticated personal digital partner under my control. For example, I get all these lengthy memos, and I want it to basically summarize the things that I need to know about: “This is repetitive, you’ve already read this, you don’t need to read it again.” The value of that is pretty high for me … just make me better at what I’m doing right now.

Where is the U.S. relative to China in terms of AI capabilities?

I was just in China for the first time in three years, and my judgment is that they are two to three years behind the U.S. right now in these technologies. They’ve indicated a strong goal to catch up. If we stop running, they will catch up, and then we’ll be really unhappy.

There’s so many ways in which AI could be distorted by [China’s] values. The most obvious one is freedom. I think that the core American value of the ability of the individual to express themselves needs to not be restricted by AI techniques. I don’t think any of us want to be surveilled to death, we don’t want to be tracked to death. All of these technologies are possible, we just shouldn’t use them.

You’ve been speaking out on the need for the U.S. to fix its immigration system to compete with China on tech, why?

On the list of stupid things America does, I propose that the single stupidest is we take the smartest people in the world who want to come here, we educate them to death, and then we kick them out. They go to these other countries and create tech competitors and military competitors. Don’t you think we should get the top Iranian scientists into America, the top Russian scientists, the top Chinese scientists? It’s not that complicated.

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