WASHINGTON — The U.S. is approaching a “critical moment” in the global technology race, and the price of losing could be a world beholden to China, according to a report by defense and technology experts.
“It is going to be the defining feature of global politics for the rest of our lives,” Bob Work, who served as deputy defense secretary in both the Obama and Trump administrations, told reporters Monday. “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 assessment, called the “Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness,” is the first published by the Special Competitive Studies Project, a private group led by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and co-chairman of the U.S government’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, and Work, who serves on the group’s board of advisors.
The organization seeks to build on the work completed by the congressionally mandated AI commission, which identified technology as the central element of the rivalry between the U.S. and China. The commission wrapped up its work last October.
According to the report, the years 2025 to 2030 will prove critical in deciding whether the U.S. keeps pace or falls behind in the technology battle.
Losing the competition could comprise Americans’ daily lives, the report said. Not only could China use its techno-economic advantage for political leverage, but Chinese domination could threaten free access to the internet and create a dependence on the country for most core digital technologies, making nations vulnerable to cyber attacks.
“Up to this point, because of the 20 years we spent in the Middle East, it kind of took our eyes off the ball,” Work said. “As this technological rivalry and competition was really growing in strength, we didn’t really respond as we normally have done in the past.”
Three technology battlegrounds — microelectronics, fifth-generation wireless technology (5G), and AI — tell the story of the U.S. and its allies coming perilously close to ceding the strategic technology landscape, the report said.
Those technologies represent the critical hardware, network infrastructure and software underpinning everyday life in the U.S. as well as the country’s national security apparatus.
Despite recent congressional action, the report’s authors said that progress in those fields illustrates reactive policymaking and a disconnect between the private and public sectors. More fundamentally, the report said the U.S. has failed to connect technology developments to strategic competition.
During the call with reporters, Schmidt specifically pointed to the danger posed by bioweapons designed using AI. Using AI, actors could treat biology and chemistry akin to building blocks, rapidly mixing and matching different combinations of compounds to create viruses.
“It’s going to be possible for bad actors to take the large databases of how biology works, and use it to generate things which hurt human beings,” he said.
The report also emphasized the likelihood of great power conflict, particularly involving Russia and China, in the years to come. While combat in traditional domains could still play a significant role, the report said that warfare will also be waged with and against industrial and financial power and pit innovation ecosystems against each other.
Schmidt, who spoke while coming back from a 36-hour visit to Ukraine, highlighted the role information technologies have played thus far in the country’s conflict with Russia. By moving the country’s data to the cloud, Ukrainian leaders were able to protect the country’s data from Russian hackers and strikes.
In future conflicts, the use of technologies will only expand, the report stated. To get ahead on these key technologies, the report called on the U.S. military to implement “Offset-X Strategy” to make the military “better prepared and positioned to outsmart, outpace, outmaneuver, and — as necessary — outgun the People’s Liberation Army.”
The approach focuses on expanding network-based operations and more dispersed, smaller units equipped with sensors and battle management software to make warfighters more situationally aware. The report also called for increased human-machine collaboration and an emphasis on software.
To make investments in these areas, the report asked Congress to include items in its next National Defense Authorization Bill that align with key technology areas and the “Offset-X Strategy.”
The components of the strategy did not contain any recommendations on lethal autonomous weapon systems. However, the organization wrote that any application of emerging technologies for military purposes can and should be done in ways that are consistent with the laws of armed conflict.
Catherine Buchaniec is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where she covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and uncrewed technologies.