Witnesses at a July 18 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing told lawmakers that artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could pose a significant threat to U.S. national security if foreign adversaries gain the upper hand in developing the rapidly evolving technology.

Witnesses at the Cyber, Information Technologies, and Innovation subcommittee hearing explained that AI capabilities hold immense potential, and increasingly are becoming an essential component of modern military strategies and operations.

They also cited statements, however, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the country’s military are determined to be the world’s leader in AI by 2030, posing a threat to U.S. national security and whatever advantage in AI that the U.S. may currently enjoy.

Alexandr Wang, CEO at Scale AI, told the committee that whatever nation is the first to integrate AI into its military capabilities will emerge as the winner in the tech race.

“The country that can most rapidly and effectively integrate new technology into warfighting wins. If we don’t win on AI, we risk ceding global influence, technological leadership, and democracy to strategic adversaries like China,” he said.

Congress – and some AI experts in the private sector – are still trying to figure out how and whether to regulate AI to prevent it from running out of control and causing harm, while at the same time allowing private sector and academic work to proceed in developing the technology. Some industry and government leaders have gone so far as to call for a “pause” on AI development until a set of international regulations guiding the technology’s development has been established.

“I would encourage Congress and the U.S. government to approach these as challenges that have to be managed, not solved,” testified Klon Kitchen, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“If we make the perfect the enemy of the good, if we try to find the exquisite solution, we will so delay ourselves that we will miss the opportunity,” Kitchen said.

Some lawmakers at the hearing warned of troubling potential consequences if China were to win the AI competition.

“More and more, I am convinced that such a pause [in AI development] comes at the even greater risk of losing our razor-thin advantage over the Chinese Communist Party and their military,” subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said.

“If [the CCP] wins this competition or wins the sort of AI component of this competition, [they] will likely use that technology … as a way of perfecting their oppressive totalitarian surveillance state, and exporting that model around the world,” Rep. Gallagher said. “Whereas we in the West, we in the free world, at least have the chance of using it for good.”

The U.S. has started to take steps to limit China’s ability to use technology developed by U.S. companies or those in allied nations. The Biden administration and Congress are also weighing further restrictions on China’s ability to procure U.S.-made technology.

For example, last fall, the Department of Commerce announced it planned to institute export controls on high-end computer chips that could be used for military applications or develop and maintain supercomputers.

“A strong bipartisan consensus is allowing us to meaningfully constrain China’s access to cutting-edge capabilities like advanced graphics processing units, and even more can and should be done,” Kitchen said.

Additionally, some of the witnesses explained that the Department of Defense can utilize AI to improve its capabilities and maintain its position as the world’s leading military organization.

Haniyeh Mahmoudian, an AI ethicist at DataRobot, said that guardrails and human oversight would help the U.S. ethically develop AI capabilities and prevent some of the worst-case scenarios associated with the technology.

“AI holds transformative potential. However, along with these benefits, it is vital to establish ethical frameworks and comprehensive governance processes that ensure effectiveness, reliability, and human oversight,” she said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.