America Must Shape the World’s AI Norms — or Dictators Will

Four former U.S. defense secretaries issue a warning about China and a wake-up call to Americans on artificial intelligence.

As Secretaries of Defense, we anticipated and addressed threats to our nation, sought strategic opportunities, exercised authority, direction, and control over the U.S. military, and executed many other tasks in order to protect the American people and our way of life. During our combined service leading the Department of Defense, we navigated historical inflection points – the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, the War on Terror, and the reemergence of great power competition.

Now, based on our collective experience, we believe the development and application of artificial intelligence and machine learning will dramatically affect every part of the Department of Defense, and will play as prominent a role in our country’s future as the many strategic shifts we witnessed while in office.

The digital revolution is changing our society at an unprecedented rate. Nearly 60 years passed between the construction of the first railroads in the United States and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Smartphones were introduced just 20 years ago and have already changed how we manage our finances, connect with family members, and conduct our daily lives.

AI will have just as significant an impact on our national defense, and likely in even less time. Its effects, however, will extend beyond the military to the rest of American society. AI has already changed health care, business practices, and law enforcement, and its impact will only increase.

As this AI-driven transformation occurs, we must keep our democratic values firmly in mind and at the center of any dialogue about AI. Developers embed their values into their products whether they mean to or not. Social media platforms make tradeoffs between free speech and protection from harassment. Smartphone companies choose whether or not to develop operating systems that block the activation of cameras and microphones without users’ permission. Just as surely, AI developed by authoritarian governments and the companies they finance will reflect authoritarian values.

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