COMPETITION TO capture the upper hand in these leading technology sectors is heating up among both states and nonstate actors. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan pledges over $1 trillion in funding for research and development and commercialization in key areas such as advanced manufacturing, alternative energy and biotechnology, while innovations in robotics, nanotechnology and clean energy are emerging from Europe and Japan. International mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures represent another approach to acquiring exponential technologies. China’s rapid adoption of semiconductor technology through the presence of German engineering giant Siemens is well-known. One sovereign wealth fund of the UAE, Advanced Technology Investment Co., recently acquired ownership of the microchip-production firm Global Foundries. Geoeconomic maneuvers can accelerate geotechnology transfer rapidly.
Public-private collaboration has brought together the long-term funding and scientific talent necessary for rapid technological progress. This diffusion of research-and-development activity into corporations and universities reflects the reality that a growing proportion of geotechnology activity is happening outside the control of even the most powerful states. Recall that Craig Venter’s private firm, Celera Genomics, first decoded the human genome in 2000 after the U.S. government had faltered in its effort to do so.
In the future, we can expect not just partnerships but also genuine competition among state and nonstate actors to drive the development of and control over exponential technologies. Many companies, private laboratories, terrorist groups, organized criminal networks and other groups seek to harness and deploy these technologies. For example, IT giants such as Cisco and Microsoft have sold sensitive encryption technology to China and other governments over U.S. government objections and laws. Even where export controls are robust, technology often evades quarantine. Computer science, robotics, AI and synthetic biology all represent technologies that once were available only to the most powerful, well-resourced governments and their allied firms. Now they are much more widely distributed. Satellite imagery was a technology previously limited to powerful governments, but today GPS chips and Google Earth give each of us that capability on our mobile phones. While the majority of these developments have inured to the public’s benefit, some have used them for ill. The terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, used satellite imagery and GPS devices during its 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai.
Robot and encryption technologies also give citizens the power to challenge the state. Much as Arab Spring activists used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize flash protests, the Sukey app enabled London rioters in the summer of 2011 to track the police, as did an “OccuCopter” during Warsaw’s protests. In September 2011, the FBI accused Rezwan Ferdaus, a former Northeastern University student of Bangladeshi descent, of plotting to use remote-controlled, robotic aircraft loaded with plastic explosives to blow up the Pentagon and Capitol Building.
The international cyberhacking group known as Anonymous is a notable example of what John Robb calls “guerrilla entrepreneurship.” It not only can harness technology to suit its agenda but also can form alliances with other groups such as WikiLeaks to release the e-mails of target organizations, as it did in targeting the security consultancy Stratfor. Together, such guerrilla coalitions could assemble their capabilities to launch a zero-day attack, meaning a crippling simultaneous assault across multiple networks. Hezbollah and Hamas have deployed reconnaissance drones that have the potential to be weaponized. Even narcotics syndicates in Latin America have conducted joint research and development in robotics. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia reportedly developed robotic submarines capable of carrying five tons of cocaine to the shores of the United States. In July 2011, a robotic unmanned aerial vehicle known as the Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform was unveiled at a hacking conference in Las Vegas. Weighing a mere fourteen pounds and sporting a six-foot wingspan, the autonomous flying vehicle is equipped with eleven separate antennae capable of intercepting mobile-phone conversations, text messages and Wi-Fi network traffic. In case the device encounters an encrypted, password-protected wireless network, it has a custom-built 340-million-word password dictionary for brute-force attacks against the network itself. This level of communications intercept was previously only available to the most sophisticated military services.
It is a mistake to limit our assessment of nonstate actors’ impact to the cyberdomain, though that is where their ability to conduct offensive operations is most frictionless and anonymous. Eventually, efforts to leverage cutting-edge innovation may occur almost completely outside the jurisdiction of sovereign states. Technology billionaire Peter Thiel has provided funding for the Seasteading Institute, an effort to create an autonomous, unregulated floating platform in the Pacific Ocean to serve as a quasi-independent economic hub for technology companies.
HISTORICALLY, GEOTECHNOLOGY has been integral to the rise and fall of empires. The Soviet Union’s lagging manufacturing output, inefficiency and poor infrastructure helped precipitate its decline, while China’s capture of critical manufacturing and other sectors has helped fuel its rise. Many policy makers, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, have identified America’s fiscal health and economic woes as a fundamental national-security concern. While many voices have called on Congress and Wall Street to do their part to get the nation’s economic house in order, they do not emphasize enough the technological component of this challenge.
At present, the United States remains the dominant innovator in each of the aforementioned technology sectors, but competition is intensifying. The corporate superpowers defining today’s technological landscape—Google, Facebook, Apple, Cisco, IBM and others—are American, but that may change as technological diffusion accelerates. The current phase of geotechnology competition has been characterized by China’s persistent appropriation of American intellectual property. But China’s heavy government investment and subsidization of its national scientific research-and-development agenda portends a move away from simple imitation toward actual innovation, with the potential for Chinese versions of Silicon Valley on the horizon.
Urgent steps need to be taken to maintain America’s geotechnological advantage. In the same way that China and other nations are investing heavily in geotechnology as a means of ensuring geopolitical and geoeconomic advantage, so too must the United States if it wishes to retain its dominant role on the global stage. One imperative is a budgetary rebalancing away from outdated large-scale pork projects and toward technological research and development.
Economists Edward Mansfield and Robert Fogel have argued that the combination of major higher-education investments and mastery of complex technologies yields enormous economic and thus geopolitical gains. Accordingly, greater collaboration among government entities, the private sector and universities is crucial to fostering rapid innovation in areas such as alternative energy, robotics, nanomanufacturing and synthetic biology. High schools also need to promote long-term student engagement with these crucial technology clusters by revamping the national science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. But America’s educational system, which has not promoted science at home, has fostered a massive influx of scientific researchers from abroad, who are then forced to return to their own countries due to restrictive immigration policies. Armed with advanced technical degrees, these U.S.-trained graduates are sent home to compete with America.
In addition to spurring homegrown innovation, official measures can be taken to monitor the inevitable diffusion of sensitive technologies. The State Department’s Office of the Science and Technology Adviser, Department of Defense and Department of the Treasury need to expand their collaboration in identifying dual-use technologies, closing loopholes that facilitate their export and sanctioning firms that violate these essential strictures. Of course, threats to America do not emanate solely from beyond its borders. As a result of Moore’s Law, technology creation and access have been democratized, allowing dual-use technologies to slip into the wrong hands inside America itself.
America also needs a strategy to respond to any prospective attacks. With the growing diversity of actors capable of striking America’s technological core at home and abroad, a “sovereignty first” policy (advocated by Anna Simons of the Naval Postgraduate School) assumes more state control than exists in much of the world. Targeting and retaliation strategies are needed to counter the electronic, legal, military and other potential responses to attacks from unpredictable and less readily traceable actors than states. This would allow for a cogent response plan to the new threat scenarios enabled by exponential technologies.
America’s geotechnology advantage hinges on a deeper and more robust dialogue between its own coasts, a metaphor for our political and technological leadership. Unlike China, where eight of the nine top party officials have science and engineering backgrounds, America remains a nation governed by lawyers. Washington, DC, the nation’s political hub, is highly distinct from the West Coast’s Silicon Valley, with each encampment often struggling to understand the other’s priorities and needs. While foreign leaders from David Cameron to Dmitri Medvedev have come to prioritize Silicon Valley as a stop on their state visits, Washington’s politicians seldom leverage the strategic dimensions of their own national technological-innovation hub. For America to remain competitive from a geotechnological perspective, this must change.
Thriving in a dynamic and disruptive twenty-first-century global landscape will require not only geopolitical insights and geoeconomic knowledge but also geotechnological innovation and strategy. America’s nuclear arsenal, battle groups and other military advantages cannot deter the forces of innovation that are diffusing and resulting in new modes of achieving power and influence. Emerging technologies and their concomitant exponential rates of change will be upon us much sooner than imagined and will upend not only established regimes but also the world’s balance of power. Just as it was not foreseen what a crucial role Twitter and Facebook could play in the tumultuous political events of the Arab Spring, so too have robotics, AI, synthetic biology and a panoply of other emerging technologies been underestimated for the potent changes they portend in global affairs. To this end, the battle for geotechnological advantage among governments, corporations and substate actors has broader national-security and foreign-policy implications than have yet been realized.Image: Pullquote: While foreign leaders from David Cameron to Dmitri Medvedev have come to prioritize Silicon Valley as a stop on their state visits, Washington’s politicians seldom leverage the strategic dimensions of their own national technological-innovation hub. Essay Types: Essay