America’s companies and universities innovate like no other places on earth. We are garage start-ups, risk-taking entrepreneurs and intrepid scholars exploring new advances in science and technology. But that is only part of the story.
Many of Silicon Valley’s leaders got their start with grants from the federal government — including me. My graduate work in computer science in the 1970s and ’80s was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
But in recent years, Americans — Silicon Valley leaders included — have put too much faith in the private sector to ensure U.S. global leadership in new technology. Now we are in a technology competition with China that has profound ramifications for our economy and defense — a reality I have come to appreciate as chairman of two government panels on innovation and national security. The government needs to get back in the game in a serious way.
Important trends are not in our favor. America’s lead in artificial intelligence, for example, is precarious. A.I. will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it is also a Defense Department priority. Leading the world in A.I. is essential to growing our economy and protecting our security. A recent study that considered more than 100 metrics found that the United States is well ahead of China today but will fall behind in five to 10 years. China also has almost twice as many supercomputers and about 15 times as many deployed 5G base stations as the United States. If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours.
Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure.
An independent federal commission on A.I., which I lead, recently concluded that if A.I. advances elsewhere outpace those of U.S. companies and the U.S. government, and give commercial and military advantages to our rivals, “the resulting disadvantage to the United States could endanger U.S. national security and global stability.” The same could be said for other emerging technologies.
And there are broader implications. Americans should be wary of living in a world shaped by China’s view of the relationship between technology and authoritarian governance. Free societies must prove the resilience of liberal democracy in the face of technological changes that threaten it.
What should a U.S. strategy involve? The government should begin by setting out national priorities across emerging technologies, with a special focus on research areas that could enhance our defense and security. This month’s budget request from the White House would double nondefense research funding by 2022 in two areas — A.I. and quantum information science. That is welcome news, but Congress should go further by making similar increases across a broader range of emerging fields, such as biotechnology.
We should plan to double funding in those fields again as we build institutional capacity in labs and research centers. These resources should support the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and other grant-giving agencies. At the same time, Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defense R & D funding in over 70 years, and the Defense Department should capitalize on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in A.I., quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.
We should incentivize the emergence of a competitive alternative to Huawei, the Chinese company that leads in 5G network technology, by expanding the bandwidth the government makes available to private companies.
We need unprecedented partnerships between government and industry. For example, a partnership should expand affordable access to cloud computing for university researchers and students. A new proposal from Stanford for a “National Research Cloud” offers a vision for this.
We should accelerate discovery by creating more flexible ways to fund the most promising researchers for multiple years at a time. This opens longer-term paths to scientific discovery.
We should undertake major efforts to train up-and-coming scientists and engineers, and attract more global technology experts to the United States. A majority of computer scientists with graduate degrees working in America were born abroad, as were most current graduate students studying computer science in U.S. universities. They are a source of national strength. A vast majority want to stay and contribute to American innovation. We must make it easier for them to do so. There is no need to wait for comprehensive immigration reform: We can change the immigration process for highly skilled people now to reduce the red tape, backlogs and uncertainty that threaten to drive tech talent to other countries — including to our strategic competitors.
Finally, we must address the concerns Americans rightly have about privacy, security, algorithmic bias, technical standards and the potential impact new technologies will have on the work force. If the American public does not trust the benefits of new technologies, those doubts will hold us back. Despite earnest efforts, the tech community has not demonstrated convincingly that it can regulate itself. The wide-ranging societal impact of A.I. in particular warrants government involvement.
To be sure, while we are competing with the Chinese, we should also work with them. There are many areas where cooperation can help everyone — for example in A.I.-based approaches to climate challenges, space exploration, disaster relief and pandemics.
These recommendations are informed by recent experiences in industry and public service, but they are inspired by the conviction instilled when I was a much younger man that a wise federal strategy can spur innovation, drive private enterprise and renew American leadership.
Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win. A bold, bipartisan initiative can extend our country’s technology advantage beyond what many experts predict. Success matters for more than our companies’ bottom line and our military’s battlefield edge. We must show that these new technologies can advance individual liberty and strengthen free societies. For the American model to win, the American government must lead.
Eric Schmidt is the founder of Schmidt Futures and chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Board. He is the former chairman and C.E.O. of Google.
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