Defense innovation experts urge US to get organized in tech competition with China

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The future of the “free” world will be shaped by technology competition unfolding between China and America in this decade — and the next few years present a pivotal window in which the U.S. must act to ensure it can maintain its global technological dominance, national security experts argue in a new report released Monday.

Across their almost 200-page analysis, officials from the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) express a sense of urgency for the United States to form a consensus on a tech-centered strategy in the near term to ultimately achieve competitive advantage in the next era. 

SCSP is privately funded, but grew out of the congressionally mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

This new report marks SCSP’s first project since NSCAI’s final study concluded last year.

Titled “Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness,” this new report is billed as an initial agenda that sets the tone for technology action plans and other recommendations that experts behind it plan to produce over the next year. 

“If we lose this technological competition, China controls the global digital infrastructure. It has a dominant position in tech platforms like 5G, it controls the production of critical tech and it’s harnessing biotech and new energy to transform its own society, economy and military. If that world happens, it’s going to be very bleak for democracy,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work told reporters on Monday during a Defense Writers Group meeting to discuss the study. “U.S. security is going to be directly threatened. Our companies are going to lose trillions of dollars in future revenues.”

Work, a Marine veteran, is on SCSP’s Board of Advisors and helped steer this initiative’s development. During the event, he and the project’s chair — former Google CEO Eric Schmidt — spotlighted some of the report’s major takeaways and shed further light on the contemporary threat landscape. 

China is doubling down on enabling technologies in areas where it is most competitive with the U.S. — namely artificial intelligence, quantum software, semiconductors, biosecurity and biotech, noted Schmidt, who previously chaired NSCAI and was the first to chair the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board.

“The biggest issue with AI is actually going to be something we don’t talk about very much, which is its use in biological conflict. 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. That’s a very near-term [threat],” Schmidt said.

Currently, experts share a general concern that the world’s database of viruses can be expanded greatly by using AI techniques — possibly resulting in the generation of new viruses. 

“I have been named to a commission of the Congress called the Commission of Emerging Bio-Terrorism. However, the meetings have not begun yet,” Schmidt told reporters.

The SCSP team’s report covers a number of short- and long-term concerns associated with ongoing U.S.-China technology competition and the unknowns around how emerging capabilities may evolve. More than 220 experts informed the analysis.

Currently, contemporary computer systems do not have their own objective function — or the ability to choose what to work on based on their own volition. Some believe that systems may be able to do that “within a couple of decades,” Schmidt noted, but at this point humans decide machines’ objectives.

“Now this is going to be central to the competition. We don’t know how authoritarian countries will view this. Perhaps they will assign more decision-making authority to machines than the West would be comfortable doing,” Work said. “This is going to be something that we will just have to see how the competition unfolds.”

That example was one of several the officials mentioned to underscore what’s at stake over the next few years.

In their first report, the SCSP team elaborates on technology trends and moves impacting the global landscape and argues that the period between now and 2030 is especially critical. The group provides a series of recommendations for the United States to set itself on a more promising trajectory by 2025.

“A contest for the future is unfolding,” they wrote. 

SCSP is set to host a summit of government and technology professionals in Washington on Friday.