Challenges of technology, innovation and competition in the new year

We may remember 2018 as a year in which great power rivalry materialized at the forefront of American strategy — with emerging technologies as a critical dimension of this competition. At a time when divisive politics and intense partisanship have undermined solutions to even the most urgent policy dilemmas, there are reasons nonetheless for cautious optimism about the potential for progress on issues of technology, innovation and competition.

The current advances in emerging technologies possess strategic significance in their own right, yet take on greater urgency because of this rivalry. Such new frontiers as biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), fifth-generation mobile communications (5G), and quantum computing are integral to economic competitiveness and are also the “very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future,” according to the U.S. National Defense Strategy. Today, traditional American leadership is contested, as China emerges as a powerhouse in science and technology, with aspirations to become a global leader in innovation.

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The recent recognition of the challenges that China presents to American national security and interests has started to reorient U.S. policy in ways that Republicans and Democrats tend to agree upon. Evidently, technology is a core concern underlying frictions and flashpoints, from the threat of China’s cyber and non-traditional espionage to security concerns over the involvement of Chinese companies in 5G development. China’s ambitions and potential to lead in strategic technologies constitute a long-term challenge of great consequence.

Going forward, a vision for strategic competition should concentrate on an agenda to invest in and revitalize American innovation. There are reasons to recognize, and even celebrate, the initial steps taken to confront these challenges — and hopefully, those efforts can be sustained and intensified.

So far, the Trump administration’s track record on technology and innovation has been mixed, but it appears to be gaining momentum. There were serious concerns that the administration had marginalized, or even outright neglected, science and technology. However, the White House has started to become more engaged on these issues.

The White House convened an AI summit in May and, in September, a summit on quantum information science and a 5G summit. Beyond these summits, the administration has started to act on these issues, including the release of a strategic overview for quantum information science and a new task force to crease spectrum strategy that could facilitate 5G deployment. Significantly, the National Science and Technology Council recently launched a strategy for STEM education — a key step towards ensuring America’s competitiveness and opportunities, including through expanding diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Congress, too, has stepped up. A bill designed to increase the availability of spectrum necessary for 5G passed with bipartisan and bicameral support. In addition, the National Quantum Initiative Act — which passed unanimously and was signed into law just ahead of the Christmas holiday weekend — is worth celebrating. This 10-year initiative will provide over $1.2 billion for quantum information science and establish multidisciplinary research centers. Such consensus is rare and encouraging, perhaps setting a promising precedent for initiatives to enhance American innovation.

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For 2019, the White House and Congress should prioritize progress toward a national strategy for AI development. The United States lags behind China and other nations that have created more comprehensive frameworks for AI policy, and the U.S. government must pursue policymaking to leverage the opportunities — and mitigate the disruption — of the AI revolution.

So far, the likely increases in funding for AI research and development, which has been identified as a priority in science and defense budgets, are a good start. The White House’s planned updates to the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan could be promising, and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, established under the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, will play a key role.

Congress also must look to the societal and economic ramifications of AI, including the impact on education and workforce disruption. Moreover, policy action will be critical to advancing AI safety and standards, given the limitations and vulnerabilities of AI technologies, and to creating a favorable regulatory environment. Beijing has recognized the importance of a whole-of-government approach, as must Washington.    

Going forward, the capacity to attract and retain talent will be a critical determinant of the trajectory of competition between the United States and China. The future of U.S. competitiveness may hinge upon this fight for talent. Although initiatives for STEM education are an important element of this equation, U.S. policies on immigration also are inextricable from this issue — and, absent action, could constitute a major liability.

Traditionally, the United States has benefited from an open, inclusive innovation ecosystem, to which immigrants have contributed tremendously. However, as the Chinese government invests in and incentivizes the education and recruitment of “strategic scientists,” the United States risks losing this edge. When U.S. policies and politics make top students, scientists and entrepreneurs less able, inclined or welcome to come to the United States, there are reasons for concern. Could Congress reach consensus on ways to attract and retain the best and brightest in 2019?

Historically, patterns of technological advancement have shaped the rise and fall of great powers, and they do so today. The future balance of power between the United States and China will be influenced by strategic technologies. Increasingly, Beijing’s advances and ambitions, whether in biotechnology or quantum technology, are presenting a new competitive challenge that should not be dismissed or discounted.

The United States is starting to pursue some of the necessary responses and it will be critical to sustain momentum in the next year and beyond. In many respects, we remain in a relatively advantageous position, but our policy choices will influence the outcomes. That’s why, given our troubling political dysfunction —including the adverse impact of the government shutdown on scientific research — the United States must rally and continue to work toward consensus on issues of technology and innovation.

Elsa B. Kania is an adjunct fellow with the nonprofit Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program. She is an independent consultant and co-founder of the China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute (CCISI). Follow her on Twitter @ebkania.