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This article was submitted in response to the call for ideas issued by the co-chairs of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Eric Schmidt and Robert Work. It addresses the first question (part b.) which asks what might happen if the United States fails to develop robust AI capabilities that address national security issues.

The year is 2040 and the United States military has limited artificial intelligence (AI) capability. Enthusiasm about AI’s potential in the 2010s and 2020s translated into little lasting change. Domestic troubles forced a national focus on budget cuts, international isolation, and strengthening the union. Civil unrest during the 2032 elections worsened everything — factionalism and partisanship smashed through the walls of the Pentagon. Major initiatives floundered over costs and fear of aiding political opponents. A few smart, ambitious Department of Defense program managers pushed through some cutting-edge AI programs, but their scale was limited.

If the United States fails to develop robust AI for national security, the net effect on national security could plausibly range from devastating to net positive. The range of futures is enormous. AI and robotics could dominate the battlefield and threaten nuclear deterrence, plausibly resulting in the loss of American great power status. Or the AI hype could fizzle and U.S. national security could be actually more secure due to investments in other technologies.

The overall effect will depend on how key uncertainties resolve. First, can robotic systems powered by advanced AI generate sufficient advantage to prove decisive on the battlefield? Second, how significantly can information warfare counter AI advantages? Third, will advances in AI be more significant to national security than other emerging technologies? Fourth, will robotics and AI significantly threaten nuclear deterrence?

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