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Perhaps because it lies at the perfect nexus of genuinely-very-complicated and impossibly-confounded-by-marketing-buzzword-speak, the term “AI” has become a catchall for anything algorithmic and sufficiently technologically impressive. AI, which is supposed to stand for “artificial intelligence,” now spans applications from cameras to the military to medicine.

One thing we can be sure about AI — because we are told it so often and at so increasingly high a pitch — is that whatever it actually is, the national interest demands more of it. And we need it now, or else China will beat us there, and we certainly wouldn’t want that, would we? What is “there,” exactly? What does it look like, how would it work, and how would it change our society? Irrelevant! The race is on, and if America doesn’t start taking AI seriously, we’re going to find ourselves the losers in an ever-widening Dystopia Gap.

piece on Politico this week by Luiza Ch. Savage and Nancy Scola exemplifies the mix of maximum alarm and minimum meaning that’s become so typical in our national (and nationalist) discussion around artificial intelligence. “Is America ceding the future of AI to China?” the article asks.

We’re meant to take this possibility as not only very real but as an unquestionably bad thing. One only needs to tell the public that the country risks “ceding” control of something — literally anything — to the great foreign unknown for our national eyes to grow wide.

“The last time a rival power tried to out-innovate the U.S. and marshaled a whole-of-government approach to doing it, the Soviet Union startled Americans by deploying the first man-made satellite into orbit,” the article says. “The Sputnik surprise in 1957 shook American confidence, galvanized its government and set off a space race culminating with the creation of NASA and the moon landing 50 years ago this month.”

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