AI Leadership at Stake in the U.S. vs. China Tech Race


With China continuing to grow as the United States’ most significant international economic and military competitor, policy experts on international trade and influence have identified artificial intelligence (AI)  as one of the big three technological frontiers—along with microelectronics and 5G telecommunications—that will be most important through 2030 as the two countries strive to grow their spheres of influence.


Those were just some of the findings in the first report published recently by the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP), “Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness,” examining factors influencing the intense competition between the U.S. and China. The document found the stakes are high, with the possibility of personal freedoms and information exchange being curtailed around the world if China becomes the world’s most important player in the fast-changing global technological landscape. In all areas of significance, the report calls for ambitious moon shot-level investments from the U.S. to attract the best thinkers and business leaders into the field of play. 


AI governance is identified in the comprehensive report as one of six strategic challenges the U.S. can and must win, with concerns for privacy and personal data rights creating friction against the need to innovate and create tools that can drive the U.S. ahead in using AI technology to discover new economic and military advantages. The report notes: “In the AI competition, the United States has a small lead, with China catching up quickly across the AI stack. In all critical emerging technology sectors, China is making massive investments to catch up or take the lead.”


One of the leaders who helped SCSP shape the report is Robert Work, who sits on the group’s board of advisors. Work is a former U.S. Secretary of Defense who served under two presidential regimes, a board member for SparkCognition Government Systems (SGS), and an advisor to SparkCognition.


In a two-part interview conducted earlier this year, Work discussed his stance that it is possible—even essential—to respect privacy rights while pushing ahead aggressively with “responsible” AI technology.


“It goes back to the competition over values. If people perceive that the United States is willing to cut corners—is willing to say, ‘well, this doesn’t quite meet personal privacy or standards that we’ve had in the past, but it will give us a big, big advantage’— we’ll start to lose the support of both our citizens and allies,” Work said.


The prospect of China becoming the lead player in influencing technological and military initiatives for decades to come has caused many similar roundtable-type discussions and reports in recent years, often with findings complementary to those in the SCSP report. Last year, the Brookings Foreign Policy Project convened ten leading scholars to assess China’s increasing stature in the world. Among the top findings of that report was that China has a much more goal-focused approach to how it handles technology and military matters:


China’s technological investments are guided by strategic clarity on objectives, including strengthening social control, expanding international influence, and enhancing military capabilities. The United States does not currently maintain the same level of clarity on its own technological priorities. It should work with like-minded partners to examine how technology can be employed to uphold shared values and international rules and norms.”


And earlier this year, the Atlantic Council observed the starkly different belief systems between the U.S. and China concerning open markets and intellectual freedoms. The group cautioned that if China surges ahead in the technological arms race, its freedom-limiting practices could spread across the globe.


“Simply put, the U.S. and Chinese governments have widely divergent views on how to use technology, and the winner of the competition will be well positioned to proliferate their view worldwide. On the whole, U.S. policymakers protect and nurture a system that promotes free markets, the free flow of information, and freedom of expression, even if specific policies pursued vary over time. By contrast, China’s government focuses on enhancing control of its citizens’ economic and personal decisions, monitoring everyday communications and movements, and does not hesitate to promote propaganda or censorship.”


Here again, Work’s decades of experience in international politics and diplomacy give him the perspective to appreciate the importance of accelerating AI advancements and other technologies. As he said to SGS earlier this year: “Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the world’s global innovation leader. It’s been the innovation hub that has really helped us both in economic competitiveness as well as military competitiveness. And the United States wants to remain in that No. 1 position, if at all possible. And the stakes are quite high,” he said.


The SCSP report identifies 2025-2030 as the most pivotal period for deciding the two countries’ competitive positioning—years that will include either a new presidency or the conclusion of Joe Biden’s presidency, with policy, educational and budgetary priorities determined by the head of the U.S. executive branch.


As advancements in AI grow daily, it is important to remember that the technology’s commercial, industrial, civic, and military uses all overlap and inform its ever-expanding role in everyday life. Companies like SparkCognition, government agencies, and any organization that works to push artificial intelligence forward and participates in the larger dialogue about how to best regulate and encourage technological advancements at the macro level will help to decide who will make the rules—and lead the world in an AI-powered future—for generations to come.

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