There is a tendency to see artificial intelligence as the latest technology fad, either a buzzword that canny entrepreneurs exploit or the starting point for dystopian nightmares. Both are potentially accurate descriptions of much of the discussion surrounding AI, but both miss the most important point: AI is almost certain to become the most critical feature of the digital economy, assuming a role akin to electricity in the industrial revolution. If that prediction is correct — and few disagree — then mastery of AI and leadership in the field could determine the future economic and military balance of power.

AI is shorthand for an amalgam of computer processes that permit machines to evaluate and learn about their environment on their own. It includes automated intelligence, assisted intelligence, augmented intelligence and autonomous intelligence. AI depends on huge amounts of data and fast processors that allow real-time analysis to identify patterns. AI will "learn" exponentially as capabilities develop. That means that the occasional stunning feats of AI that we now encounter — victories by machines over chess or go masters — are trivial in comparison to what is coming. One study estimates that AI could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, a boost of 14 percent that will come from productivity gains and shifts in consumer behavior. Another analysis anticipates that AI will boost Japan's annual growth rate by 1.9 percentage points by 2035.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for many world leaders and AI experts when he told students last year that "artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind," adding that "whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world."