We Need More Pentagon and Tech Industry Collaboration, Not Less

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Now more than ever our country needs the government and private sector to partner to win the artificial intelligence race.

We live in an increasingly complex world, and unfortunately, it becomes more dangerous every day. We cannot sit idly by while our adversaries adopt the approach that the country that wins the artificial intelligence race will control the world. Instead, we need to foster and democratize AI amongst those countries who are looking to create a more prosperous, open and free society.

AI, already a force today, will be used across every sector and in devices that touch every aspect of our lives. Already, it’s being used in our cars and homes, our manufacturing plants and energy grid—and our military. If the U.S. and its democratic allies win the AI race, the Defense Department will deserve credit because of the unique way it collaborates with the private sector.

Right now, this long-standing partnership has its problems. Among them, the Pentagon’s cloud contract—which will enable faster deployment of new technologies into our military—has become another flashpoint between Silicon Valley and the department.

As we race to develop technology that will fundamentally change the world, now more than ever our country needs the government and private sector to partner on innovation.

The Pentagon is ready to modernize, and even more importantly, is asking for help. Recognizing how important AI will be to our future, it has pushed ahead, even though the U.S. lacks a cohesive national AI strategy. Over the past few months, it announced a central hub for AI research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the same group that invented the internet—launched an initiative to develop the next generation of AI technology.

History shows us the power of collaboration between the agency and the private sector, and not just to deter and win wars. The foundation of the modern tech industry descends from innovations funded and developed by the government in partnership with businesses.

In the early 1990s, when I was an Army officer, I witnessed first-hand when the Army began using digital maps and GPS for training exercises. Today, that GPS technology is embedded in our smartphones, guides Uber and Lyft, and enables industries such as logistics and construction.

As the internet took off, I was also fortunate enough to work with companies like Netscape. Without DARPA’s investments, that business and so many others would not have been created. The way our society communicates today would not be possible. Emails, web pages and videos all ride on the communications protocol it developed that undergirds the internet.

It’s worth noting that the foundation for modern AI was laid in World War II when Alan Turing, a technologist, worked with the British cryptanalytic department to crack German cipher codes. By some historical estimates, this tech-defense collaboration shortened the war by years and saved millions of lives.

I respect the current debate: It’s true that we need to be thoughtful on how, when and where we use AI. These new technologies have raised the stakes and ethical questions should be addressed. Human rights, privacy, and data protection issues cannot be ignored.

It is healthy and necessary for our country and our citizens to have these vigorous, open discussions. But we need to move forward together to create a better society. By disengaging, technology companies are effectively putting the future power of AI in the hands of our geopolitical adversaries. In contrast, collaboration between the private sector and the government will ensure a diverse set of voices at the table and allow us to better incorporate the legitimate concerns currently being voiced.

I believe what is best for the tech industry, the Defense Department, the economy and our country is to invest in the partnership. Simply put, the government needs the private sector’s ideas and innovation, and the private sector needs the government’s funding and scale.

For the tech industry, the Defense Department offers the opportunity to prototype technologies that require more research and development resources than the private sector or shareholders can afford—or want—to provide. The many military-backed innovations that underpin today’s digital economy took decades to mature.

For the public at large, innovation has led to our economic prosperity. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that innovation is responsible for more than 50 percent of the recent increases in productivity. Greater productivity is the foundation of growth, competitiveness, and a higher standard of living.

It is terrifying to imagine a world in which bad actors, terrorists or dictators have the most advanced artificial intelligence technology. From political disruption to warfare to cybersecurity to economic differentiation, the consequences are endless. AI is the most strategic investment we can make right now to ensure we’re building an open, free and prosperous world––and not just for Americans.  In order to invest in that future, we need our government, and the Pentagon, in particular, to have a willing partner in the American technology community. Let’s move forward together.

Scott Bolick is the Head of Portfolio Strategy & Industries at Uptake. He started his career as an officer in the U.S. Army.