WASHINGTON — Unless the U.S. launches a national initiative on artificial intelligence and considers immigration changes, China is likely to eclipse America as the dominant force in AI, Google’s top executive warned Wednesday.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet and the chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board, said the U.S. needs to “get our act together” if it doesn’t want to fall behind on the technology that could determine the future of both the defense and commercial sectors.

In the last year, Beijing released a formal AI strategy, which Schmidt, speaking at an event organized by the Center for a New American Security, said should set alarm bells ringing in America.

“It’s pretty simple. By 2020, they will have caught up. By 2025, they will be better than us. By 2030, they will dominate the industries of AI,” Schmidt said, describing the plan. And, he added, Beijing is on track to meet that; the CEO predicts China will reach parity with the U.S. sometime in the next five years.

“They have announced their strategy, so you’re crazy to treat them as somehow second-class citizens,” Schmidt said of China. And if America thinks China “won’t produce people who can do this, you’re wrong.”

For the U.S., the only option is what Schmidt referred to as a Sputnik moment — a national movement to focus research efforts and funding on understanding this technology and maintaining a definitive technological edge. That means investing heavily into basic research, something Schmidt noted the Trump administration’s first budget cut, as compared to previous years.

“This is the moment where the government, collectively with private industry, needs to say these technologies are important,” he said. “If you believe this is as important as I suspect all of us do, and certainly I believe, then we need to get our act together as a country.”

While China is acting to strengthen its knowledge base, Schmidt warned that America is hamstringing itself thanks to tough immigration rules that block some of the world’s best and brightest from coming to the U.S.

“Shockingly, some of the very best people are in countries that we won’t let into America. Would you rather have them building AI somewhere else, or would you rather have them building here?” Schmidt said, echoing long-standing complaints from the tech community over immigration issues — complaints that have only gotten louder under the Trump administration.

“Iran produces some of the smartest and top computer scientists in the world,” Schmidt added. “I want them here! I want them working for Alphabet and Google. I’m very clear on this. It’s crazy not to let these people in.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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