Speaking today during a conference hosted by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in Washington, Esper said that during WWII, "titans of industry" had transformed Detroit into an "arsenal of democracy" to feed the U.S. war effort.
Following the war, when the Soviet Union launched the satellite sputnik, the U.S. created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and "took control of the space race," Esper said.
"Mastering artificial intelligence will require similar vision, ambition and commitment," he said. "We need the full force of American intellect and ingenuity working in harmony across the public and private sectors. We need your leadership and vision to ensure we maintain a strategic edge."
During the conference, Esper said China has set a goal for itself of being the world leader in AI by 2030.
For instance, their efforts have helped them develop autonomous vehicles, Esper said. He said the People's Liberation Army is moving "aggressively to deploy them across many warfighting domains."
At the same time, he said, China is also investing in low-cost, long-range autonomous and unmanned submarines, as well as exporting advanced military aerial drones.
The U.S. military, he said, "will harness the potential of AI to create a force fit for our time. We believe there is tremendous opportunity to enhance a wide range of the department's capabilities from the back office to the front line, and we will do this while being recognized as the world leader in military ethics by developing principles for using AI in a lawful and ethical manner."
Esper said he places development of artificial intelligence capabilities at the top of the list for technology the department needs, closely followed by directed energy weapons and hypersonics. Advances in AI, he said, have the potential to change the character of warfare far into the future.
"Whichever nation harnesses AI first will have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for many, many years," he said. "We have to get there first."