You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 56: Can The US Win the Technology War?

Can The US Win the Technology War?

The United States has been the leader in digital technology and innovation for decades. However, in recent years, the race between countries to control this space has become closer than ever. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Daniel Gerstein joins us to explore the global technology war and the power that comes from being its winner at every stage.

Gerstein discusses his new book “Tech Wars: Transforming US Technology Development” (1:25) and how the US rose to the top of the global technology and innovation race (2:31). He explains how US innovation has benefitted the rest of the world (5:28) and the US government's role in technological innovation (10:04).

How are innovations like airplanes, medical equipment, smartphones, and the internet regulated (13:04)? What are the dangers of unregulated social media sites (22:02)? Gerstein answers these questions and discusses the importance of collaboration and evaluation to tackle data privacy and free speech concerns online (25:16). The episode concludes as Gerstein shares his thoughts on whether China and the US can ever have a symbiotic technology relationship (26:32).

During our “Take Five” segment, Gerstein forecasts five innovation trends as the US continues to compete in the global technology war (17:14).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. The first so-called supercomputers around the 1970s were best measured in feet, not inches. And their actual computing power is dwarfed by the pocket-sized iPhones of today. Technology evolves fast and the winners in every stage of the technology race receive not only financial rewards but also global power and reach on a previously unknown scale.

0:40 Today we're talking about digital technology and the global race to innovate and control it. I'm joined by Daniel Gerstein. Daniel Gerstein is a professor here at the School of International Service and a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. Previously, he served at the US Department of Homeland Security as acting undersecretary and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate. He's an Army veteran who served on four continents, participated in combat, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism, and Homeland Security, and he established the United States Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM’s, Cybersecurity facility following 9/11. Dan, thanks for joining Big World.

1:24      Daniel Gerstein: Well, thanks for having me.

1:25      KS: Dan, your recently published book, called Tech Wars: Transforming U.S. Technology Development, focuses on the global technology race and what it takes to be the leader. So what is the meaning behind the book's title, Tech Wars: Transforming U.S. Technology Development, and why is this topic so important right now?

1:45      DG: Well, great question. So it's interesting. When you write a book, there are a number of different ways in which you think about how you want the book to be perceived. And so one of the first questions I came to was, should I call this a tech war or should I call it a competition or a conflict? And I settled on tech war. And why did I settle on tech war? Well, I really was trying to signify the magnitude and the urgency of the issues that we're facing with respect to technology. And I come to the conclusion that says that we, as a country, are really not prepared to wage such a war. And so that sort of underpins the entire way in which I think about this issue.

2:31      KS: The U.S. has been the leader in the technology and innovation race for decades. What has made the US so successful previously, and do you think this level of innovation is sustainable in the future?

2:45      DG: Yeah, so when we think about the way the United States has evolved in our technology and our research community, we have to sort of go back to the World War II period, in which really the modern research and development capabilities were established. We learned a great deal in being able to supply the War, to provide technology for the War. And many of those lessons then started to be considered in the post-World War II period. And in thinking about those, there was this question right from the very beginning about, should we have a connected system of research and development or disconnected. And by connected, what I mean is that all of the research and development is really pointed very directly towards solving today's problems. Operational problems.

3:42 But the other way to think about it is to have somewhat of a disconnected, where some of the research and development is not trying to solve today's operational problems, but rather looking to the future. And we decided on a blended model, in which we still had to worry about the technology problems of today and technology for solving operational problems, but we also wanted to consider the future and we needed to think about those technologies that would be very important in the future. Such as, as you mentioned in the opening, supercomputing. And that's something that we had thought about since the World War II period.

4:25 So jumping forward, what we've seen is that the United States government actually had a very significant role in funding many of the technologies that we look at today and have made us a global leader, such as the Internet and global positioning, the GPS that we use in navigating on a daily basis. And so we've been very successful with that. And what it's arrived at is a country, the United States, which has 4% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's wealth. And a lot of that, if you think about what the economists tell us, some have measured that our growth is somewhere between 30 and 90% based on our technology enhancements that we've included in our economy. So that's pretty substantial. And to think about what the future holds, that's why it's important that we do take this tech war very seriously.

5:28      KS: Dan, when we talk about U.S. domination and technology innovation, that's obviously a huge advantage to the U.S., as you just outlined financially. But have there been any benefits to people outside the U.S. that have resulted from the U.S.' success and technological innovation? Has this benefited any other people globally?

5:49      DG: Well, absolutely. But I would say that as we think about answering that question, we should also say and acknowledge upfront that it has not benefited all across the globe in the same manner. But certainly, there's lots of evidence that suggests that the technologies that have been developed and that not just the United States, but around the globe, have been very beneficial for humankind. And it's measured in things such as quality of life and longevity, and our ability to feed peoples, in our greater knowledge of the natural world and each other. And some of those can also cause tensions. To bring this even closer, a more recent example, when you think about COVID-19 and the rapid development of the vaccines and the therapeutics and medical countermeasures. That's really unprecedented, to be able to do and to include those technologies so rapidly into our repertoire to fight COVID-19. So a lot of what we see around the world today is based on infusions of technology that have benefited humankind.

7:08      KS: And every upside, of course, has a downside. So have there been any recent tensions or skirmishes brought on by U.S. Advancements and technology? Pretty sure there have been. What are some of those?

7:23      DG: Yeah, so in the book, I actually have a chapter that talks about technology skirmishes. And I like to think about it in those terms, because what we're really seeing are these small battles, in some cases fairly large battles, that are being waged. I look at things like shifting power dynamics, and here an example is North Korea and their nuclear and missile programs. Here's a country that since the early 1990s has been under very significant and severe sanctions, and yet they have been able to make use of

8:00      DG: ... help from their allies, and to a certain extent, development of indigenous capabilities over time. And they've developed a very significant nuclear and missile program. So, that gives you just one idea of what's out there. I call another one of these areas, war in the shadows. And here, I like to use the 2016 election interference by the Russians as an example of these kinds of shadowy types of technologies brought on by the influence of the technologies. And regardless of whether or not it was able to influence the 2016 election, I'll leave that to people who look at that in more detail. But it was clear that there was an intent by the Russians to use that technology to influence. And the final one that I'd love to talk about is really what I call war in the tech economy. And here, the great example is the race to 5G. 5G is cellular telephone technology. It's being fielded throughout the United States and the world even as we speak. But we made some decisions early in the development of 5G, which really negatively influenced the US's ability to compete. In fact, and the reason that happened was because the military and law enforcement wanted to use a part of the spectrum, which has a better waveform, but requires twice as many base stations, and so, therefore, would be twice as costly for countries that are looking to build out their 5G networks.

10:04      KS: And that 5G issue kind of gets into the next line of questions I want to go down. I think that when we in the US think about technology or the kind of end-user fun part of technology, our phones that do all these neat things, we tend to think of 20-somethings working in startups in Silicon Valley, working in shared workspaces, and everybody's just innovating, and it's all about a better online experience. And clearly, the perception of the US government has not been of that nimble startup culture. The wide perceptions are that its sort of this lumbering albatross that gets in the way of any type of innovation. And clearly, neither of those images is completely accurate. So, I want to talk a little bit about how the government plays a role. When we talk about technology enterprise and innovation, what role does the US government play, I guess, for bad and for good? How do they help, and how do they hurt, and what's their role?

11:13      DG: This is another question that we have to start back at the end of World War II, and we have to think about the government's role. Remember, I spoke about this connected versus disconnected system. And the government does play a role in funding. And in fact, back in the late '50s and early '60s, the government was actually the largest funder of research in development in the United States. And we were funding, we the government were funding about 68% of all of the research and development. And if you looked globally, the United States was funding about 70%, which made the US government one of the largest funders across the globe. But what's happened is that over time, industry has really taken over the leadership role with respect to research and development funding.

12:10 So, the government still has a very important role to play. The role that the government plays today is to fund basic and applied research. That is the early research, which takes a long time for a payoff to occur. Again, going back to our COVID example, the study of Messenger RNA was actually done, some of it was done by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, starting back in about 2010. And so, about 10 years later now, we see that messenger RNA is forming the basis for the COVID vaccine. So, the government has an important role, but industry is really taking over that leadership and is now doing about 65 or even more percent of the research and development in the United States.

13:04      KS: When we think about the iPhone or the smartphone that most people have at this point, it is something that is taken for granted as something that is, depending on your point of view at any given point in the day, it's a lifeline. It's a nuisance. It's entertainment for your child when you're trying to drive somewhere. What it doesn't ever feel, I think, to most of us, and I would include myself here, is dangerous, in the sense of when I get on an airplane, I'm aware that this is a flying machine that could potentially... This flight could always have a catastrophic outcome. And certainly, that's the goal is to not.

13:49 Medical equipment, things that treat people's injuries or illnesses, to try and diagnose or treat them, you want to believe that those items are safe, and have been tested, and are well-regulated. And that someone, and when we say, "Someone," we generally mean the government, whether we know it or not, is keeping an eye on it and making sure that there is a standard that companies and individuals have to maintain with medical equipment so that we will all be safe. How does the US regulation of technology, of digital technology, and I'm thinking smartphones and the internet, in particular, how does that compare to other industries or things like airplanes or medical equipment?

14:42      DG: Starting with the internet. The internet was designed with really the information-sharing capability as the primary development requirement. And we gave much less emphasis to the security that accompanies the internet. And because of that, we're continuing to observe that we have insecurities, and we see these play out in all kinds of cyber-attack, from ransomware to malware, to thefts of intellectual property and money. And a lot of this is based on not designing our system for two co-equal priorities. That is information sharing and security. This will only get worse when we have an internet of things with a couple hundred billion nodes in the internet of things around the globe. And we will need to think about what that means in terms of our networks and potentially being penetrated by bad actors. One that we're suffering with right now and we're seeing a lot of

16:00      DG: ... issues is the social media platforms that are out there. And when you think about some of what has happened with respect to even Twitter today, allowing people who have been engaged in hate speech to get back onto the platform, for example, of having all manner of inappropriate discourse occurring on these platforms is very dangerous. And so we are going to have to think about, and I say we globally, are going to have to think about how do these platforms need to evolve so that they're not just, if you will, free fire zones for anybody to say anything they want and that we are being respectful of each other on these platforms and not allowing ourselves if you will, freedoms that we wouldn't allow if it wasn't for the anonymity of the social media platform.

17:14      KS: Daniel Gerstein, it's time to take five and this is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud, reorder the world and maybe forecast the future a little bit. So given that our topic has been all about technology, which is always moving forward, what are the five trends in technology innovation that you see coming that we should know about?

17:34      DG: Well, thanks. It's a great opportunity to just do some free thinking and give you what's coming off the top of my head. So let me first start with continuing shifts in technology development. During the podcast, we've talked about the fact that the government used to be the largest funder and is now no longer the largest funder, and industry and academia have become the largest and second-largest funders of research, development, and innovation. And so that's number one, but along with that, the government still has a role to play. The second future trend that I see is that managing technology has become considerably more challenging. And when I think about this, I sort of tell myself we're living in a 21st-century technology-enabled world, but it's built using 19th and 20th-century processes and organizations, yet it has 18th-century laws. So I think managing these technologies is going to become increasingly more challenging as we go forward and the technologies get more advanced.

18:53 My third future trend is there is a growing competition between humans and computers. And as we think about this, and this is really important for the future of work and the question of what will humans do when we've incorporated artificial intelligence and robotics and autonomous systems into the workforce with increasing regularity? So as we think about this, are there systems that will remain predominantly human, and are there other systems that will become the domain of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems? And are there still others that can be shared between humans and machines in teams, if you will? I think understanding that and planning now is very important. The question becomes what kind of workforce will we need in this competition between humans and computers? What skills will they need? What types of jobs will remain? So all of that I think is very interesting. My fourth trend is I think there needs to be or there have been changing expectations for society. And by that, I'm talking about privacy and liberty and freedoms, and I asked myself the question with some frequency actually, can privacy, liberty, and freedom still survive in this growing technology convergent world when someone is always going to be watching, listening, and collecting?

20:28 And so my fifth technology trend is really the increasing risk to humanity, and here I like to think about what the future looks like at the intersection of artificial intelligence, the internet of things and biotechnology. When we think about these three, artificial intelligence, we could start to see systems embedded in silicon, which have judgment and wisdom and cognition and conceptual abilities that exceed or even greatly exceed what humans can do. When we think about the internet of things, we just talked about privacy and liberty and freedom. Those are concepts that really define humanity in many respects.

21:16 And then finally, biotechnology. I mean we are on the verge of being able to manipulate, to change, to alter the human germline, that is those inheritable traits that are passed from generation to generation. And if we change both those traits but then also look at the internet of things and artificial intelligence, what does that say about the humanity that is left? And so that's the kind of stuff, those are the kind of trends that I see in the future, and now is the time to at least consider, are those where we want to be when we look 50 years into the future?

22:02      KS: Thank you. Dan, you mentioned social media, we mentioned it a couple of times. I do want to get into that a little bit. There have recently been a lot of concerns about unregulated social media platforms, including, very notably, Elon Musk buying Twitter and the changes he has made there in terms of moderation, compliance, letting people back on the platform. And then, of course, there're ongoing concerns about meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and their data privacy and content regulations issues. I feel like we should stipulate up front that social media has positive aspects because it really does connect people and it has been used to create real and positive social change, that's just happened. But there are distinct hazards present in social media. I think we all saw this in the US in the 2016 presidential election. How dangerous can social media platforms be, and are these dangers exacerbated or lessened if the company is publicly traded?

23:06      DG: I guess I would say with regard to social media, what we're seeing is that there is this tension, and the tension comes down to the regulations that govern the use of social media. And one in particular, which is Section 230 of the Communications Code. What Section 230 does is it essentially establishes the idea that these companies are using what's called the public square in order to host their platforms, whatever it is, whether it's Twitter, whether it's Facebook. And by public square, think about as you would, a regular public square where somebody is in the public square saying something, and they're allowed to say it because it's free speech. Based on that,

24:01      DG: The companies are able to provide the venue where they host these public squares, but they're not then responsible for the content that is in use or that is out in the wild, so to speak. And the companies have come back and said, "Look, if you change Section 230, we won't even be able to have social media." So, there is this tension about, "Is social media possible to retain if you did away with 230?" You have the sense from the companies that the answer is no. The government is still thinking about, "Are there ways to regulate congresses in the middle of this, trying to understand what might an appropriate regulation be?" And I'll just offer, the question I always ask is, "If you're not allowed to be in, say, a movie theater and yell 'Fire,' then why are you allowed to be in one of these public squares and yell the equivalent of fire, using hate speech and other types of speech that would not be considered appropriate?"

25:16 And then, you get into this question of, "What's appropriate?" So, I think what we're facing is a period where we are going to have to evaluate collectively. We are going to have to figure out, that'll be the executive branch, it'll include the judicial branch, legislative branch, and probably individual people making themselves known about how they feel about these social media platforms. But in the meantime, we are seeing evermore confusion with regard to what goes on on social media. And in many respects, I see it going the wrong way. It's been disappointing that Elon Musk has taken over Twitter in the way he has and allowed those who engage in what used to be prohibited speech, which I've been calling hate speech on this podcast. But it's disappointing that that's now being allowed again. And what I would've hoped would be that we could find a way to move the pendulum a bit back into the center so that we could have productive dialogues.

26:32      KS: Dan, I want to turn to China very quickly. As you know, the US and China combined to make up nearly 50% of the global economy. What does the current US-China technology war look like? And can a mutually beneficial technology relationship ever be successful between the US and China?

26:52      DG: President Xi has already demonstrated that he has great designs through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Made in China 2025. He wants to be the global leader, both in the technologies and with the proliferation of those technologies. And that is putting him directly opposed and in a direct competition with the United States in many of these areas. And it's not a frivolous discussion about, "We want to lead because we want to lead." Let me give you an example of why leadership in artificial intelligence is very important. To have good artificial intelligence that doesn't harm humankind, you have to have goals and objectives embedded in the artificial intelligence that help to guide the technology, that the goals and objectives serve as the left and right limits so that the technology doesn't go off on its own, so to speak.

28:03 But you can imagine that if the Chinese were to establish and be the principal nation in artificial intelligence, the goals and objectives they might establish are likely not to be friendly to the United States and our Western allies. And so, having the capability to ensure that this technology is developed appropriately becomes extremely important. The other thing that the United States has been very concerned about all along has been China's approach to intellectual property rights. And here, nothing sings about this more than patents, but China is about to find itself or is already in a very different space with regard to patents. The United States has been talking about this for the last 20 years. We used to be the largest annual patent holder in the world, but in 2020, China actually filed for 1.5 million patents and the United States only filed for 600,000 patents.

29:27 So, they were almost three times more patents. Now, some of those might be junk patents and not enforceable, so there is some question about some of those patents. But it points to China is seeking to compete even in regulatory issues, even with intellectual property rights. And so, we need to find a space, I think we do, where we can work together, where it serves both our interests. As you pointed out, China and the United States are almost 50% of the global economy. And the idea that we are going to disconnect supply chains, for example, and go our own ways and have a tech war, the former Cold War between NATO, and the Warsaw Pack, between the US and Soviet Union, that is not reasonable. That would hurt both economies. So, navigating these very difficult times will be extremely important.

30:34      KS: Daniel Gerstein, thank you for joining Big World to discuss the race to innovate and control digital technology. It's been great to speak with you, and I learned a lot.

30:44      DG: Well, thanks. It was a great conversation and thanks for hosting me.

30:48      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like a gingerbread house that actually tastes good. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Daniel Gerstein,
professor, SIS

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