The next arms race will be fought not in megatons but in milliseconds. When the primary players can destroy each other 100 times over, it comes down to who can do so faster.

Of course, that is a vast oversimplification of the race occuring right now, particularly between the United States and China for superiority in artificial intelligence programs and related technology.

The U.S. is currently leading, but according to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in its recent report to Congress, China is projected to overtake the U.S. in research and development spending within ten years.

Of course, spending primacies can change. If, for example, military and political priorities move less resources to a space force and more to practical AI integration into current fighting forces, the Chinese edge could be blunted or reversed.

And the Commission offers changing priorities as one of its solutions, as well as applying AI to national security missions, training and recruiting AI talent, marshalling global AI cooperation, and protecting and building on U.S. technology advantages. And that last priority is where we come in.

One of the long-time advantages for the U.S. over dictatorial economies has been the way that our industry and government have worked together to maintain technological edges. When we were competing against the Soviet Union, our adversary did not have any industry aside from that dictated and directed by the central government, and that is not so much coopertaion as co-opting. A free and independent set of companies, each spending billions on AI and machine learning development can advance the field for everyone, but can also be supplemental to our defense spending.

But there is resistance in techworld. Wired Magazine recently observed that “Employee protests forced Google to promise not to renew its piece of a Pentagon program, Project Maven, created to show how tech companies could help military AI projects. Microsoft has also faced internal protests over contracts with the Army and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” Google also released a set of ethical guideline that forbid the company to work on weapons systems. Conversely, both Microsoft and Amazon have bid for national security contracts recently.

A set of technology companies free to set their own agendas and work on their own projects is one of the great advantages of the U.S. system.  New technologies bubble to the top without direction or mandate from the government, who can spend its own money directing its own projects.  These two parts of the U.S. national security infrastructure, even if one half doesn’t perceive itself this way, can keep this country in the lead on AI development for decades to come. But they must collaborate wisely.

The report warns that U.S. research and development spending as a percentage of our GDP” has returned to pre-Sputnik levels. While we are no longer in a cold war, and we are currently disengaging ourselves from paying attention and treasure around the globe, technology moves on. AI will develop with us or without us, and the U.S. should work hard to maintain a lead and benefit from directing AI as it grows into a dominant societal force. This may be the best way to protect our national security.