US approaching ‘critical window’ in world-defining tech competition with China: Report

US approaching ‘critical window’ in world-defining tech competition with China: Report

Artificial intelligence and technology graphic. (Getty images)

WASHINGTON — A compromised open internet, widespread technology-enabled surveillance and a world dependent on China for most core digital technologies. Those are just some of the worrying potential outcomes to be expected if the US doesn’t act within the next few years to maintain its global technological dominance, according to a new report published by a group of defense innovation experts. 

The technological competition with China “is going to be the defining feature of global politics for the rest of our lives,” Bob Work, former deputy defense secretary, told reporters Tuesday. “And it is going to determine who is the greatest economic power in the 21st century. It’s going to determine who is the greatest military power. It is a competition that we simply must win.” 

The nearly 200-page “Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness” report, released on Tuesday, is the first report published by the Special Competitive Studies Project, led by former Google CEO and co-chairman of the US government’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) Eric Schmidt and Work, who serves on the group’s board of advisors. The Special Competitive Studies Project is a private outfit, formed after the NSCAI’s work concluded last October. 

The report builds on several ideas from the NSCAI and focuses on three technology “battlegrounds” with China that they say the US must win: microelectronics, fifth-generation wireless technology (5G) and AI. The report also notes where it sees the US already behind.

“In our judgment, China leads the United States in 5G, commercial drones, offensive hypersonic weapons, and lithium battery production,” the report says. “The United States has modest leads in biotech, quantum computing, commercial space technologies, and cloud computing, but these could flip to the China column. In the AI competition, the United States has a small lead with China catching up quickly across the AI stack.”

The report states the 2025 to 2030 time frame represents a “critical window where tech needs and strategic competition will come to a head in the contest.” Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project, told reporters on Tuesday the time frame “is a really important period for our country and the global geopolitical security.” 

What would a world in which the US loses the technology competition look like? According to the report, China would control the digital infrastructure of the world, have the dominant position in the world’s technology platforms, potentially compromise foreign infrastructure and control the production of critical technologies, like microelectronics.

“Even if only some of this came to pass, the world would be a darker place for the United States and democracy,” the report says. “Losing the competition with China is not just about preserving abstract principles and political institutions — it will lead to the transformation of our daily lives in ways that will be impossible to ignore.”

A New Public-Private Model Of Cooperation

The report argues that the US innovation ecosystem is under-performing for five reasons: Less investment in technologies, like semiconductor production, due to high costs/risks; regulatory hurdles; uncertainty surrounding necessary accompanying innovations or infrastructure; outdated acquisition models and a distorted investment market.

A potential solution to overcoming these challenges and connecting the commercial, academic and government sectors in the US to build an advantage in critical technologies might lie in a new “public-private model” technology strategy process proposed in the report that would provide a strategy to make decisions on technology priorities and create “action plans” to develop them.

The proposed hub, which the report states the US currently lacks, would blend public and private resources and be guided by an evaluation framework that analyzes technologies, whether adversaries have an advantage over the US and what needs to be done to improve the US’s position. The action plans for those technologies would outline specific goals for investing in and accelerating their development. 

“Recognizing key technologies and building an action plan are necessary steps, but the U.S. ecosystem must actually act,” according to the report. “To best compete, the United States must recognize and work to close holes in its innovation ecosystem, particularly concerning ‘deep tech,’ to fully harness latent potential. Mobilizing a whole-of-effort requires matching the power of China’s fused system, but doing so by drawing on American strengths, not mimicking China’s state-centric, authoritarian approach.” 

Working with other nations like Japan, the United Kingdom, India and Israel can also help inform national technology policies, the report says. Work told reporters building a “democracy-led techno-industrial alliance” to stay ahead of adversaries can help, but remains more of an aspirational goal for now.  

“It’s easier said than done,” Work said. “We had a very similar recommendation coming out of the National Security Commission on AI. It was well received at the Department of State. They started discussions with our European allies immediately and I think our Asian allies too, and said, how would we go about doing something like this? 

“So this is more of an aspirational goal now… We’re focused on the 2025 to 2030 timeframe,” he continued. ‘And with good diplomacy, I think we could have the framework for a techno-industrial alliance in that timeframe if we really pursued it.”