‘We have to do it faster and better than they do’: CIA chief sets out era of US-China ‘strategic competition’ in AI and beyond

By on 17/07/2023 | Updated on 17/07/2023
William J Burns, director of the CIA, delivers the Ditchley Annual Lecture in 2023
William J Burns, director of the CIA, delivers the Ditchley Annual Lecture in Oxfordshire

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency has said that harnessing the power of artificial intelligence represents “the most profound transformation of espionage tradecraft since the Cold War” as he discussed the challenge of increasing strategic competition between the US and China.

Giving the annual Ditchley Lecture – organised by UK-based foreign policy group the Ditchley Foundation – William Burns said the world had entered a post-Cold War era in which governments had to work together to secure “a world that is more free, open, secure and prosperous”.

Burns said that many adversaries to the US and its allies were moving fast to exploit open-source information and embrace “the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence… We have to do it faster and better than they do,” he said.

In particular, he said there is the potential for AI technologies to “find patterns and trends in vast amounts of open source and clandestinely-acquired data”.

This could free up agency staff to provide “reasoned judgments and insights on what matters most to policymakers”, and he emphasised that the human capabilities of the agency would remain key.

“While mastery of emerging technologies will shape our future in many ways, it is the remarkable men and women at the heart of CIA who will always drive it forward. They have been operating at an incredible tempo for more than two decades, since the terrible attacks of 9/11, and we’re determined to provide them the support they need and deserve.”

Read more: ChatGPT a threat to national security, warns Pentagon AI chief

A transformative approach

Burns outlined several CIA initiatives designed to secure geopolitical advantages for the US, including a new mission centre announced in 2021 that Burns at the time said would “further strengthen [the agency’s] collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government”.

The new mission centre for China came in conjunction that year with a new transnational and technology mission centre. Burns said that without these initiatives, “[the CIA] will not be able to keep pace with intelligence rivals like China, or keep ahead of them”.

The launch of the transnational and technology mission centre also prompted the CIA to hire its first chief technology officer. The role was assigned to Nand Mulchandani, an entrepreneur with 25 years’ experience in Silicon Valley and the US Department of Defense.

Read more: Treat AI with ‘same spirit of urgency’ as climate change, says UK PM

Burns said democratic nations would need to use partnerships with the private sector to keep pace with or ahead of opponents, given the “remarkable speed and scale” of breakthroughs in areas like AI, and biotechnology and biomanufacturing.

He made reference to CIA Labs, a new programme launched by the intelligence agency to support research and development of technologies in conjunction with academic and private sector partners.

“[The CIA was] an early investor in the technology you now know as Google Earth. And our specialists also developed the precursors to the lithium-ion batteries that power your smartphones today. We’re constantly looking for the next breakthrough,” he said.

Governments around the globe are examining the potential for AI in their operations. Both Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and the UK Cabinet Office have issued guidance to public servants around the use of generative AI in government, including use of tools such as ChatGPT, Google Bard and Bing AI, while Global Government Forum research has found that one in ten Canadian public servants are already using AI for work purposes.

However, many politicians, public service leaders, tech company bosses and others, although acknowledging the potential benefits of AI, have also voiced concern over its use in government and beyond. In May, the US Department of Defense’s chief digital and AI officer Craig Martell said he is “scared to death” of the potential for generative artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT to deceive citizens and threaten national security.

Read more: Australia issues guidance on how public servants can use AI in government

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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