How America Blew Its AI Leadership Position and How to Regain It

Al Naqvi is a Professor and President at the American Institute of Artificial Intelligence. Mani Janakiram is a Manufacturing Supply Chain and Analytics executive at Intel.

Below, Al and Mani share 5 key insights from their new book, At the Speed ​​of Irrelevance: How America Blew Its AI Leadership Position and How to Regain It. Listen to the audio version—read by Al and Mani themselves—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. America failed to maintain its lead and compete effectively in the AI ​​space.

Just a decade or two ago, the US held a powerful lead over the rest of the world in artificial intelligence. But many recent reports confirm that China has passed the US in AI, at least in certain areas. This implies that China’s rate of progress must have been stounding to not only catch up but surpass the American lead. While China advanced, the US languished.

In 2018, General Mattis issued a Defense Strategy for America, in which he used the phrase “at the speed of relevance.” It was a powerful depiction of what America needed to do: stay ahead in AI and competitive technologies. As General Mattis put it, it wasn’t about just developing technologies—it was about implementing them with success. Unfortunately, America made progress in AI, but not at the speed of relevance.

2. If America falls behind in AI, it will fall behind in every other sector.

Declining to the second position in a given technology may not sound like a big deal. After all, America maintains a leadership position in so many other areas, from the pharmaceutical industry to defense. But AI is not just a capability like information or energy—it is the underlying force that fuels innovation and productivity in every sector and every industry.

“While China advanced, the US languished.”

So it is only a matter of time before increases in productivity and innovation by competitors will make American products and services less productive, less attractive, and less innovative. America was fine with China being the manufacturing hub for the world, while the Western world was viewed as the Elysium of the service sector, research and development, and finance. But what changed the status quo was AI. In Senator Marco Rubio’s words, “China aims to become the global leader in innovation and manufacturing. This would be an unacceptable outcome for American workers.”

3. America recognizes the need for a change in overall geopolitical strategy.

AI is the new battleground, and every other battle—economic, social, business, or military—will now be fought with AI. All of a sudden, the world was left with no choice but to assume a great power competition, and a new Cold War era had begun. It was not the economic rise of China as a manufacturing hub that triggered the new Cold War. It was AI.

As we started looking at the various problems impacting the United States today—from extremism to racial tensions, ideological polarization, declines in productivity, and flawed economic forecasting—we recognized that AI can play a significant role in addressing and solving those problems. So AI can not only drive productivity and innovation in all sectors, but it can also help solve some of the largest problems facing our country and the world.

“If AI is the future of America, shouldn’t this be the absolute priority of any US administration?”

In this way, there is an opportunity cost to not approaching AI strategically. If AI is the future of America, shouldn’t this be the absolute priority of any US administration? Well, we discovered that many striking mistakes were made at various levels. Most importantly, the executive branch failed to play a central role in introducing the technology to Americans—and it matters how technology is introduced to people.

4. Every new technology involves social sense-making.

Emotional or semantic understanding of a technology at a social level sets the future direction of how a society adopts that technology, what meaning it derives from it, how excited it feels about it, and how it conceptualizes it. That’s why President Kennedy’s vision-setting about America’s space program, and President Clinton and Al Gore’s introduction of the internet, helped drive excitement and mobilized America to embrace new technological leadership roles. It created awareness and excitement and set the mood of the nation. They used words such as “information superhighway” to communicate to people in simple words what the internet was. This vision-setting is what makes technology adoption successful.

“The most powerful force ever unleashed in the history of human civilization was left to find its own direction in an America divided by racial, religious, political, and social tensions.”

Unfortunately, both the Trump and Biden administrations failed to create that vision-setting for AI, and the AI ​​industry developed in an orphaned state. The most powerful force ever unleashed in the history of human civilization was left to find its own direction in an America divided by racial, religious, political, and social tensions. Daily political distractions and bickering were taking attention away from where it needed to be. That was when the AI ​​revolution needed planning, handholding, TLC, and nurturing—but it didn’t get any of that.

5. Society was introduced to AI via its ethical and governance problems, rather than its potential.

Since AI was a relatively new field, the introducers of AI needed to find an existing hook or anchor to socialize the technology to the world. That hook, unfortunately, turned out to be the terminator robots. Society’s existing perception of AI had been shaped by Hollywood movies. So, it became natural to link AI ethics and governance. There is nothing wrong with that, and these are critical issues for AI. But ethics and governance are important considerations in anything humans do. If you were introducing the auto industry, would you start with the dangers of drunk driving? How excited would your audience be?

During America’s chaotic entry into the world’s most powerful transformation, the lack of vision-setting and leadership was carried over to the legislative branch and agencies. We observed the same chaos in the private sector, where companies experienced difficulty in trying to explain AI to their clients. What is AI, and how can it be useful? How should one invest in AI? Is AI a strategic transformation, or just a point solution? Executives struggled to find answers to these questions.

To listen to the audio version read by authors Al Naqvi and Mani Janakiram, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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