This week, President Donald Trump signed a new executive order on artificial intelligence and the Pentagon declassified part of its AI strategy. Neither was a first attempt at a national AI strategy. In 2016, the Obama administration published a comprehensive plan on the future of AI, which never had time to gain the momentum it needed in government. The Pentagon has been researching intelligent machines for the better part of 60 years, and only recently did it come to a consensus: Our future wars will be fought in code, using data and algorithms as powerful weapons. Using AI techniques, a military can “win” by destabilizing an economy rather than demolishing countrysides and city centers. From that perspective, and given China’s unified march advancing artificial intelligence, China is dangerously far ahead of the West.
Amy Webb ( @amywebb ) is a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business and is the chief executive of the Future Today Institute, a strategic foresight and research group in Washington, DC.
In my view, we’ve come to this realization too late. Regardless of what orders might be signed or what new strategies are put into action, Washington is going to have a recruitment problem: There just aren’t enough incentives to lure AI talent away from high-paying jobs with great benefits into a life of public service.
The future of AI—and, by extension, the future of humanity—is already controlled by just nine big tech titans, who are developing the frameworks, chipsets, and networks, funding the majority of research, earning the lion’s share of patents, and, in the process, mining our data in ways that aren’t transparent or observable. Six are in the US, and I call them the G-MAFIA: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple. Three are in China, and they are the BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
The few government agencies built for innovation—the US Digital Service, the US Army’s Futures Command, the Defense Innovation Board, and the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) initiatives—are brittle in their youth and subject to defunding and staff reductions as the revolving door of political appointees spins. In practical terms, there is too little strategic collaboration between the G-MAFIA and our government agencies or military offices—at least not without a lucrative contract in place. While the G-MAFIA usually lobby for huge tax incentives and breaks to do business, they also must agree to the arcane, outdated procurement requirement policies of the military and government. This doesn’t exactly accelerate AI in our national interest. If anything, it shines a bright light on the cultural differences between Silicon Valley and DC, and it slows down modernization.
Washington and the G-MAFIA tend to view their relationship as transactional, not collaborative. During the past several years, neither lawmakers nor the White House has made an honest effort to develop the kind of relationships with G-MAFIA executives necessary for a long-term coalition on AI. The G-MAFIA, US military, and government circle around each other without ever converging in our national interest. Without collaboration, would-be researchers, scientists, and managers don’t have the opportunity to meet each other, cultivate a network, and form the close relationships that typically lead to talent transfer between organizations like we typically see in other organizations.
In my own meetings at the Pentagon with Department of Defense officials, an alternative view on the future of warfare (code vs. combat) has taken too long to find widespread alignment. For example, in 2017, the DOD established an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team to work on something called Project Maven—a computer vision and deep-learning system that autonomously recognizes objects from still images and videos. The team didn’t have the necessary AI capabilities, so the DOD contracted with Google for help training AI systems to analyze drone footage. But no one told the Google employees assigned to the project that they’d actually been working on a military project, and that resulted in high-profile backlash. Four thousand Google employees signed a petition objecting to Project Maven. They took out a full-page ad in The New York Times , and ultimately dozens of employees resigned. Eventually, Google said that it wouldn’t renew its contract with the DOD.
Amazon, too, came under fire because of a Pentagon contract worth $110 billion. In October 2018, House Appropriations Committee members Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Steve Womack (R-Arkansas) accused the DOD of conspiring with Amazon to tailor the contract so that no other tech giant would qualify. But that wasn’t the only complaint. There was a small wave of dissent at Amazon. Some Amazon workers were outraged that the company would do any work at all with the US military, while others didn’t like that Amazon’s facial recognition technology was being used by law enforcement. In response, Jeff Bezos told an audience at WIRED's own 25th anniversary conference, “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.”
But who would come and work on AI for the federal government or US military when the perks of Silicon Valley are spectacularly more attractive? I’ve had lunch in the Navy’s Executive Dining Facility in the Pentagon and on the G-MAFIA’s campuses. The Navy’s dining room is smartly appointed, with insignias on the plates and a trim daily menu of meal options—and, of course, there is always a chance you could wind up sitting next to a three- or four-star admiral. That being said, enlisted women and men don’t get to eat in the Executive Dining Facility. People who work at the Pentagon have a choice of food courts with Subway, Panda Express, and Dunkin Donuts. I had a toasted panini once at the Center Court Café, which was dry but edible. The food on the G-MAFIA’s campuses isn’t remotely comparable: organic poke bowls at Google in New York and seared diver scallops with maitake mushrooms and squid-ink rice at Google’s office in LA. For free.
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Food isn’t the only perk within the G-MAFIA. Just after Amazon’s Spheres opened in Seattle, a friend took me on a tour of what is essentially an enormous greenhouse/workspace. The Spheres are just marvelous: climate-controlled, glass-enclosed, self-contained ecosystems made up of 40,000 species of plants from 30 different countries. The air is clean and fragrant, the temperature is around 72 degrees regardless of what the weather is like outside, and there are comfortable chairs, loungers, and tables all around. There’s even an enormous tree house. Amazon staff are free to work in the Spheres anytime they want. I was once called into a meeting with some senior State Department officials. It was a drab, white, windowless room with creaky old chairs, a stained whiteboard, and an electronics cabinet outfitted with a VCR player.
If recent trends hold, the G-MAFIA looks like it offers the biggest perk of all: long-term job security. During the past two decades, the government seems to have weaponized the budget, and that has resulted in a record number of shutdowns . There were three in 2018 alone, one of which was the longest in US history. If you’ve ever worked for a startup or a company that’s in trouble, you’ve had to live with the stress of not knowing whether you’ll get your next paycheck. Paradoxically, that’s one reason people go into public sector work: to avoid that kind of stress. Even with the promise of back pay, it seems as if every few weeks federal workers are now bracing for the next government shutdown or recouping from the previous one.
My point is this: It’s really hard to make the case for a talented computer scientist to join the government or military, given the current political climate and what the G-MAFIA offer. The opportunity cost of civic duty is far too great in the United States to attract our best and brightest to serve the nation.
The center courtyard of the Pentagon isn’t going to transform into the Spheres anytime soon. But the government can allocate significant funding—several billion to start—for basic and advanced research in AI. It can use some of that money for better compensation packages, to build capacity among existing staff, and to fund projects allowing the tech giants and public sector to start working much more closely together. Collaboration is in the best long-term interests of the G-MAFIA too. AI is a massive field, and there is plenty of work to be done.
Excerpted from The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb. Copyright © by Amy Webb. Published by arrangement with PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here.
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Federal contracting records indicate that Google, Oracle, IBM, and SAP have signaled interest in working on future Defense Department AI projects. John "Jack" Shanahan, who leads the JAIC, said the unit will focus on rapidly deploying existing AI algorithms and tools, often contracted from technology companies, in military scenarios.