By Julian E. Barnes and Josh Chin

Four years ago, planners at the Pentagon reviewed estimates of China’s growing military investments with what one called a “palpable sense of alarm.” China, the planners determined, was making advances that would erode America’s military might—its ability to project power far from its shores. The search began for technologies that could give the U.S. a new warfighting edge against its rival.

The U.S. now finds itself in an escalating AI arms race. Over the past two years, China has announced AI achievements that some U.S. officials fear could eclipse their own progress, at least in some military applications. “This is our Sputnik moment,” said Robert Work, the former deputy secretary of defense who oversaw the Pentagon’s move into the new field.

“The Chinese have done a good job of adopting the American strategy and using it against us,” said Chris Taylor, chief executive of Govini, a big-data and analytics firm that has studied government investments in AI. “Not too many years ago we would say China steals information and that is how they innovate. That is not where they are anymore.”

Scroll Up