Nicolas Chaillan warns China is winning AI battle

The Air Force’s first chief software officer has quit and is warning that the U.S. is losing the cyber and artificial intelligence race with China

If the U.S. government does not wake up immediately, Nicolas Chaillan says there will be no stopping China from winning the fight.

Mr. Chaillan, 37, left the government in September, and his admonitions for America to change course have captured the attention of Washington from Capitol Hill to the Department of Defense. 

He said he has received death threats from critics of his warnings about China’s advantage in AI and cyber. 

“The main message is we have not lost the war but we need to wake up and we don’t have the luxury of time and we can’t hear about more reports and Congress asking the DoD to go and study things more and spend 50 to 60% of the AI funding we get on ethics,” Mr. Chaillan said. “We need to focus on capabilities and we need to deliver it rapidly using agile methodologies and we cannot be stuck in time.” 

The tech sector’s aversion to working with the U.S. government is a problem that helps give China a competitive edge, said Mr. Chaillan, who said Silicon Valley is unknowingly influenced by the Chinese. 

He said the potential for all of America’s advances in artificial intelligence to come from private companies is “scary” if they choose to work with China but not the U.S. 

“It’s concerning because you see a lot of these techies effectively despise the U.S. military but yet have no issues when their own companies do business with China,” Mr. Chaillan said. “And they just don’t know. They don’t see what we see. They don’t see the classified stuff we see, they don’t see what’s going on.” 

The public can see Mr. Chaillan’s concerns on his social media accounts on platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and Congress has taken note. After Mr. Chaillan posted his resignation letter criticizing government “laggards” in September, Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota Republican, spotlighted Mr. Chaillan’s exit from the government during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

“The recent resignation of the first-ever chief software officer highlighted a growing concern and frustration over the lack of investment in new technologies to enable joint command and control,” Mr. Rounds said at the hearing. “More importantly, it highlighted the challenge of recruiting and retaining talent at critical positions needed to compete with growing global threats across every domain.” 

Mr. Chaillan said he is willing to participate in hearings with Congress, but he wants a portion of his testimony to be unclassified so the public can hear what is really happening. 

He said he tried to raise concerns internally but grew frustrated witnessing the government’s lack of change.

“I wanted to make sure, one, we could raise the problem because I tried to raise it internally for three years and I saw a lot of great talk and I never heard the wrong things but then I think, for me, it was time to walk-the-walk and I didn’t see that,” Mr. Chaillan said. “And with the new administration, it actually got worse with effectively them not funding a lot of the work we’re really trying to do, and that’s when I decided to leave.”

Among the steps Mr. Chaillan wants to see the government take include mandating agile software development practices, DevSecOps, for new programs that combine development, security, and information technology operations, and investing in enterprise services. Mr. Chaillan said the benefit of increasing the speed of the delivery capability of new software is evident in a company such as SpaceX that can update its software in a day while the government would take 1 to 5 years. 

While Mr. Chaillan has urged swift action, Congress is pursuing a different path that involves directing the federal government to produce new reports about artificial intelligence. 

A major defense bill passed by the House last month directs the secretary of defense to review potential applications of artificial intelligence and establish performance objectives within a year from the enactment of the legislative proposal. 

The proposal for more government studies comes after previous years’ versions of the major defense bill created the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), which submitted a 752-page report to Congress and President Biden this year on how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to avoid falling behind China on artificial intelligence. 

According to NSCAI’s website, 19 of its recommendations were included in a previous defense bill and more are still being debated. 

Mr. Chaillan’s passion for urgently winning the cyber race against China has become personal, as he moved from France to America, became a U.S. citizen, and started a family. He described his work within government as a “miracle” because of how he was able to rise up the ranks from the outside.

He said the reason why he is pushing America to make changes to win the artificial intelligence race against China is because he wants to give back to the U.S. and is concerned about his children’s future.

“I have three kids, and that’s where really it started to become even more personal because I was starting to see how far behind we are getting and even on the stuff we used to be leading, slowly but surely they were catching up,” Mr. Chaillan said. “And I started to wonder what kind of fighting chance would my daughters have in the world in 20 years from now? And I was really getting concerned and that’s where it really became [a] really big urgency for me to do more.” 

The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Chaillan said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has reached out to him about serving as an unpaid consultant, and he has agreed to do so. 

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