Air Force embraces former software chief who quit, warned China is winning AI competition


The Air Force says it sought the input of its former chief software officer after he quit and publicly warned that China is winning the artificial intelligence race. 

Nicolas Chaillan resigned as the Air Force’s first chief software officer last month and published a resignation letter lamenting government “laggards” and then sounded the alarm that China is winning the AI and cyber competition with the U.S. 

While Mr. Chaillan’s criticisms garnered news coverage that depicted him as a frustrated former employee waging a one-man crusade, the government has continued to solicit his advice in private.

Rather than dismiss Mr. Chaillan’s concerns, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall invited him in to discuss his concerns. 

“In that discussion, Secretary Kendall thanked Mr. Chaillan for his contributions to the Department of the Air Force, the two discussed Mr. Chaillan’s recommendations for the Department’s future software development, and Secretary Kendall wished Mr. Chaillan well in his future endeavors,” said Air Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Justin Brockhoff in an email. “Secretary Kendall and Mr. Chaillan left open the potential to engage in future discussions.”

The use of artificial intelligence involves machines designed to think and act like humans to perform various tasks. China and America are vying for dominance in AI, which has spread across the commercial sector and can be used in the national security realm for planning, perceiving, and physical action against an adversary. 

Mr. Chaillan told The Washington Times he agreed to work as an unpaid consultant after outreach from Mr. Kendall, which he thought demonstrated Mr. Kendall is intent on making changes to help the U.S. government win the AI race. 

“The simple fact that he reached out right after the announcement of my exit publicly, where most people would just not care and move on, that means to me, that tells me that he really wants to make things happen,” Mr. Chaillan said. “Because if he were just pretending, and talking the talk, he would not reach out.”

Whether the federal government makes changes in response to Mr. Chaillan’s warnings remains to be seen. Mr. Chaillan previously said he is willing to participate in hearings with Congress but wants a portion of it to remain unclassified so the public can listen to his perspective.

Others outside the government think the question of who will win the AI competition remains wide open. Harvard computer science professor Jim Waldo said he was less pessimistic than Mr. Chaillan about America’s chances in the AI battle with China. 

Mr. Waldo noted that much of the U.S. investment producing technological innovation happens in the private sector instead of through universities’ research funded by the government. 

“The idea that this research is going to be led by the military is sort of laughable,” he said in an email. “But the use of the technology should be increased by the defense services, and the funding from the government should be increased to encourage open development. We haven’t lost yet, but we could if we don’t invest in the future.”

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