Booz Allen's chief warns U.S. of a 'close race' with China on AI

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(Bloomberg) -- The chief executive officer of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. warned that the U.S. has only a small advantage over China in the rising field of artificial intelligence and is at risk of falling behind without a “national strategy.”

“It’s not the 50-year edge that we have in building aircraft carriers,” Horacio Rozanski said Thursday in a meeting with Bloomberg editors and reporters in Washington. “It’s now a much closer race, without a doubt.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made a 10-fold increase in AI output a national priority as the world’s second-largest economy seeks to dominate the industry by 2030. The U.S. has little formal AI strategy at the federal level, although resources and government projects have accelerated in the last year or so, Rozanski said.

“The investments are being driven at this point by the strategies of the different parts of the government, as opposed to collective strategy,” he said. “I’m not sure that there’s a coordinated approach between the private sector and the public sector, and those are the things that, I think, are going to be necessary.”

Hands-Off Approach

Rozanski also spoke about the role of academia in the rapidly growing field.

“It’s not clear to me that we’re training the people we need to train to do this work, because we haven’t thought through it enough,” he said.

The comments from the McLean, Virginia-based company, which gets 97 percent of its revenue from defense, intelligence and analytics work with the U.S. government, come as President Donald Trump’s administration has told business it will take a hands-off regulatory approach to AI.

The White House has also touted increased funding for AI, including at a meeting in May with representatives of companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Boeing Co. It’s stopped short of answering calls by some in the technology industry for increased funding of AI education and coordination of priorities by the government.

Supply Chains

Turning to cybersecurity, Rozanski weighed in on the potential threat posted by technology parts that originate in China and other nations, in light of the clash between the White House and some members of Congress over the future of the Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp.

“That’s a significant concern,” Rozanski said international technology supply chains, giving the example of a car theoretically made in the U.S.

“Who made the computer inside the car and then who made each individual chip inside that computer and then who wrote all of the software that is inside each one of those chips?”Rozanski said. “It’s not quite an intractable problem but you have to spend a lot of time and effort and money to be able to track it.”

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