In early December of 2017, world technology leaders assembled in Wuzhen, China, for the 4th Annual World Internet Conference. It was a widely attended event and included the chief executive officers of Apple and Google. The theme of the conference was “developing a digital economy of openness and shared benefits.”
As Chairwoman of the subcommittee that provides oversight of DARPA, whose technological breakthroughs created the Internet itself, I found myself concerned that such an event wasn’t being held in the United States, already home of a digital economy of openness and shared benefits.
The House Armed Services Committee, and my subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in particular, has for the past several years reviewed in detail China’s advances in technology, including their cyber and information warfare capabilities and advanced weapons systems such as hypersonics and directed energy. Just a few weeks ago, we held an open hearing focused on many of the newer technologies that China is investing in to support their national objectives, including artificial intelligence, high-performance and quantum computing, and genomic engineering.
What we learned was alarming. China continues to increase their research and development investments at an alarming pace and is rapidly closing many of their technology gaps. More and more, they use only domestic Chinese firms while creating high market-access barriers to support domestic capacity. The effect is to replace any and all dependency on foreign companies, investments and technologies.
Aside from the obvious economic benefit of China being able to create millions of exclusive, high-paying, high-skill jobs for its workers, there are also obvious national security implications should they corner the market on advanced technologies critical to national security.
China is also aggressively moving to acquire enabling commodities such as data; current trajectories have China on track to have roughly 30 percent of the world’s data by 2030. China’s vision for dominating technology and the Internet is based more on control than on the democratic values our country was founded, including free, open markets and capitalism. But in a digital economy, data is the new currency, and we are learning the hard way that China is about to strike it rich.
Many of China’s published national-level plans — such as achieving dominance in artificial intelligence by 2030 — indicate a top-down, government-driven agenda that provides a road map for strategic collaboration between industry, academia and their civil society. These plans, when combined with resourcing, effort and patience, may propel China to leap ahead in many of the technology sectors the United States currently dominates. Most notably, China’s leadership appears to recognize the connection between the development of many of these advanced technologies and economic growth. This is something we should remind ourselves of as we continue to examine this important topic; perhaps it is a lesson we need to relearn amidst our debates on Sequestration and Continuing Resolutions.
Despite these trends and concerns, I firmly believe that China’s dominance in technology is not a foregone conclusion. And we are wise to remember that in the end, this is not about China. Rather, it is about what the United States can and must do to improve and maintain our technological edge for this information-enabled 21st century economy.
In the coming weeks, I intend to take what my subcommittee has learned and translate this into action, to inform and reform our government in support of national-level efforts so that the United States remains home to the world’s leading experts, researchers and technological breakthroughs.
Fortunately, we have momentum to build upon. Previous defense bills have reformed outdated and cumbersome laws, energized the defense industrial base and stimulated innovation by authorizing initiatives such as the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) and the Defense Digital Service. Still, much work remains — and includes modernizing our defense labs, improving critical infrastructure and ensuring our ability to operate in an information- and cyber-degraded environment, and stimulating small businesses and private-public partnerships.
Our recent hearings have also highlighted the need for us to develop and consider national-level strategies for other emerging technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, genomics, and high-performance and advance computing. And I intend to ensure the Pentagon considers these technologies for our use while also monitoring and mitigating adversarial use as well.
I firmly believe that we can and should drive a national-level dialogue to advance innovation across the government, to maintain a battlefield advantage, and to energize our domestic industrial base and provide technology jobs and opportunities across many sectors here in the United States.
These actions will ensure policy keeps pace with technology as we develop an information economy for the 21st century.
• Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican, is Chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
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