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Illustration by TIME; reference image: David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alexandr Wang became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at 24, after dropping out of MIT five years earlier to co-found Scale AI in 2016. Scale, which helps companies improve the data they use to train their machine-learning algorithms, uses both software and human workers to label, or tag, the vast troves of text, image, and video data. The San Francisco–based company has become a $7 billion behemoth, with a client roster that includes the giants of the field, including Meta, Microsoft, and OpenAI. “We’ve been quietly powering the entire AI industry for many, many years now,” says Wang, 26.

But what increasingly sets Scale apart is its CEO’s message that America’s national security is tied to its ability to become the dominant player in AI. After a trip to China in 2018, Wang became outspoken about the threat posed by China’s AI ambitions, and cultivated ties with U.S. officials who shared his sense of urgency. “It dawned on me that this technology had become really, really critical for how the future of our world is going to play out,” he says. “I think it’s really important that not just ourselves, but as many AI companies as possible, are working to help bridge the gap.”

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Wang’s upbringing, as the son of Chinese immigrants who worked as physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where nuclear weapons were first developed, instilled in him a conviction that “breakthrough technologies are actually a really critical part of national security,” he says. “I was pretty aware of how important it was to have these technologies to be able to deter your adversaries.”

Wang’s view that the AI race is a battle between “democratic values” and authoritarianism has resonated in Washington, where officials are studying how AI could reshape warfare and alter the global balance of power. Wang has briefed lawmakers behind closed doors, appeared at hearings on Capitol Hill, and secured lucrative contracts with the Defense Department. Scale now lists the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Pentagon’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office among its clients.

But Scale’s values have also come under scrutiny. The company has increasingly drawn criticism for relying on cheap labor abroad, outsourcing its data-labeling work to more than 200,000 people in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where it reportedly pays some workers less than $1 an hour. Labor-rights groups have assailed the company for operating “digital sweatshops.” A Scale spokesperson tells TIME that their economists conduct quarterly pay analyses “to ensure fair and competitive compensation.”

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