Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly a defining factor in the economic prosperity and military strength among superpowers, and the Department of Defense — like in our past — will serve as the incubator and leader for the development of this technology.

This year’s fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) marks a significant step forward in DOD’s AI leadership and development. In the 2019 NDAA, I introduced legislation to establish the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) that brought together the country’s leading technologists and thinkers in AI to provide Congress with recommendations to improve America’s AI competitiveness. The commission’s work has paid off, and this year, the NDAA authorized 17 NSCAI recommendations, from elevating the director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) to report directly to the deputy secretary of defense, to allowing part-time employment of university professors and students in national laboratories, and authorizing several billion dollars for AI research and development.

In the military domain, AI will help our service members more effectively identify and engage targets, streamline our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and assist in everyday human operations. However, AI applications are dual-use, and like countless technologies developed by the DOD — the internet and GPS to name just two — AI will be critical for business and commerce throughout the U.S. For instance, AI will be able to conduct predictive maintenance on aircraft and transport vehicles, automate manufacturing processes, improve personal cybersecurity, and assist in the field of health care.

These dual-use capabilities make it imperative for DOD, the private sector and academia to work together on developing and deploying AI systems. Many of the AI authorizations in this year’s NDAA will help establish those critical partnerships between the government and academia and facilitate public and private industry cooperation to develop these systems.

Despite the AI advances in this year’s NDAA, there is more work to be done. Moving forward, we must find ways to enable the construction of robust data sets — the backbone of machine learning and AI — to be shared by government and private industry partners for AI development. Within DOD, continuing to strengthen the JAIC will remain a top priority. The JAIC must balance the need to enable DOD components and branches to deploy their own tools and products, while at the same time keeping sight of the imperative to develop AI solutions to high-profile and cross-cutting challenges like Joint All-Domain Command and Control and health care. Overall, this year’s provisions to elevate the JAIC’s direct report, establish a board of outside advisers, and establish acquisition authority for the JAIC are all critically important steps to strengthen DOD’s AI capabilities and will be built on in future NDAAs.

The U.S. is not alone in the adoption of AI, but rather in a race against our peers for the development and leadership of this technology. The competition is fierce, and our adversaries are making substantial investments in their own AI capabilities, most notably in China.

In 2017, President Xi Jinping remarked on the desire for China to be the global AI leader by 2030. Since then, China has utilized AI to develop their cyber capabilities, mature their intelligence collection and improve their own weapon systems. China’s policy of civil-military fusion also allows for abolishing barriers between the military and private industry, and the scaling of AI development, in a way that is prohibitive in the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also acknowledged the critical importance of AI by asserting the leader in the field will eventually rule the world. Despite being significantly behind the U.S. and China in AI, Russia has initiated plans for developing its own capabilities, primarily in the military, surveillance and information domains.

Despite this stiff international competition, the U.S. is well-positioned for continued AI leadership. We have the requisite human capital, academic and private sector institutions, and financial resources to continue making significant progress in AI. We cannot, however, become complacent. Throughout the education system and academia, we must continue to place a premium on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. By prioritizing STEM education, we will establish a pipeline to produce a workforce with the technical skills and competencies to fill jobs in the field of AI and other emerging technologies like quantum computing.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future of American leadership in AI, as demonstrated by provisions to strengthen the JAIC and the multiple billions in authorized spending for general research and development of AI and other emerging technologies. It will be critical for Congress in the years ahead to support continued AI development at the Pentagon, strengthen partnerships between government and private industry, and ensure our education system prepares our students to enter the AI field. I am proud to have led many of the AI provisions in this year’s NDAA, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue this work in the years ahead to strengthen our economic and national security.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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