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US has an ace up its sleeve in the great race with China: immigration

US has an ace up its sleeve in the great race with China: immigration
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America remains the world’s most technologically advanced society, but this leadership position is being challenged like never before. Unless we get our act together, America’s power, prestige, wealth and global leadership will be lost.

But while that the Trump administration seems to be doing all it can to undermine America’s technological leadership, we still have a killer app that can fix this problem in spite of our other shortcomings should we choose to use it.

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Advanced technology and national power have always gone hand in hand. The Mongols leveraged their better way of pairing horses, stirrups and bows and arrows to conquer their massive empire. The British built theirs on steam power.

American technology not only won World War II but also launched the jet, computer, internet, biotechnology and other technological revolutions. The U.S. leveraged this technological advantage to lay the foundation of globalization, grow the global economy and help build and protect the world we live in today.

Along the way, there have been challengers with different worldviews. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Americans felt suddenly insecure and invested heavily in the science and technology that pushed American leadership and economic growth to new heights.

China has its eyes firmly set on becoming the world’s dominant technology superpower. Starting from a very low base only a few decades ago, Beijing today is investing massively in educating experts, funding basic sciences and supporting key industries, often at levels surpassing what’s being done in the United States.

In 2016, Chinese scientists for the first time produced more scientific papers than their American counterparts. China has set a goal of becoming the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) superpower by 2030, and the country is well on its way toward potentially achieving that goal.

China is thinking big about technology the way the U.S. did when we set our sights on a moon landing in the 1960s.

Last year, more funding went to Chinese AI startups than to American ones. The Chinese government has protected its technology companies from foreign competition and outlined a “military-civilian integration development strategy” to harness AI to enhance Chinese national power.

China’s goals are not just about technology leadership but about reaching China’s declared goal of becoming the “global leader” in “comprehensive national strength and international influence” by 2050. America has been put on notice.

A first-mover advantage brings enormous benefits for many technologies. Google, Facebook and Amazon are great companies, but it’s no accident they all were founded in the country that pioneered the internet. The same will be true for the next phase of innovation.

The first country to build a quantum supercomputer, for example, will be able to easily crack the encryption codes and gain the secrets of all the other countries and their most innovative companies.

The first country to build massive pools of high-quality data about their citizen’s genetics, habits and practices will be best positioned to use big data analytics to lead the world in precision medicine, autonomous vehicles and product innovation.

The first country that builds a fully integrated army of humans and autonomous or semi-autonomous drones will have a massive military advantage over everyone else. That China is setting national goals in these areas does not ensure it will lead the world, but it’s certainly a good start.

Rather than rising to meet this challenge, however, the Trump administration has:

  • gutted the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy;
  • proposed massive cuts to U.S. science funding;
  • engaged in a sniping contest with American tech giants;
  • prioritized 19th-century industries like coal and steel over 21st-century technologies;
  • made it harder for the world’s smartest thinkers and doers to live and work in America; and
  • is pushing a trade war that will ultimately only undermine America’s competitiveness.

Winning this competition will be what FBI Director Christopher Wray correctly identified as a “whole of society” challenge.

Because the emerging U.S.-China rivalry will be win-win in some ways and zero-sum in others, America must look actively for opportunities to collaborate with China but also recognize that creating the most dynamic innovation ecosystem possible at home is among our most critical national security interests.

To do this, we must:

  • invest far more in basic sciences;
  • set national priorities for continued leadership in AI, nanotechnology, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology;
  • articulate ambitious national technology goals; and
  • rebuild the strong partnerships between American government, universities and businesses that have been a hallmark of nearly all of our country’s most important technological achievements to date.

But even if we aren’t great at building this type of comprehensive national science and technology policy, we can make one change today that will significantly enhance our national competitiveness for generations and send competitive shock waves around the world.

America can rebuild our innovation edge by prioritizing the recruitment of the smartest and most innovative people from all over the world.

Immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. Around one-fifth of Fortune 500 CEOs are immigrants. More than half of our Silicon Valley technology workers are born abroad.

Rather than keeping immigrants out, we should be doing all we can to bring the future Andy Grove, Sergei Brin, Jerry Yang and Elon Musk to the U.S. 

To help make this happen, we must do far more to keep the foreign students graduating with advanced degrees from American universities in this country.

In addition, every U.S. embassy should be given a quota of recruitees based on the size and education level of the country they are in and embassy officials should be rewarded for finding the brightest people from all walks of life and convincing them to bring their creativity and drive here.

Because we can’t know which of the recruitees will become superstars, we must invest in the potential of high-powered and highly motivated people and their children as much as in already-proven innovators with the confidence that these people will in aggregate create far more jobs than they take and grow America’s national wealth and overall competitiveness.

Embassy officials should be rewarded for finding the brightest people and convincing them to bring their creativity and drive here. 

Comprehensive immigration reform is an ideal toward which we should strive because America desperately needs more immigrants and refugees of all types to help build our future.

In addition, actively recruiting the brightest individuals from around the world is the smartest investment we can make in order to win the innovation competition that will define the 21st century. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Jamie Metzl is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, has served on the U.S. National Security Council, State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is the author of the forthcoming book, "Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity." Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.