Ex-Googler Eric Schmidt's think tank warns China could win global tech race

USA told to sort itself out in 5G, AI, and microelectronics by 2025 – or things could get mighty grim

US think tank the Special Competitive Studies Project, a private spinout from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, has warned that the period between 2025 and 2030 will be the time when global technological leadership will be decided – and the USA and like minded nations may not be able to maintain their lead over China.

The Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) is chaired by former Google boss Eric Schmidt and was formed in October 2021. The organization’s first publication emerged last Monday, titled "Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness". The document [PDF] asserts that three technologies – microelectronics, AI, and 5G – will determine national power.

Microelectronics matter because the USA is utterly dependent on them, but most are made "in the shadow" of China. If China were to capture chipmaking plants and cut off supplies of raw materials needed to make them, the Project predicts "America's military is crippled, and the nation is plunged into a depression."

The tech ecosystem evolved without reference to geopolitical rivalry and with indifference to strategic implications

5G is critical because Chinese firms led hardware development and deployment, giving Beijing the chance to control network hardware around the world.

AI matters because China has linked it to national security – but Washington's plan to do likewise trailed Beijing's by four years.

"The United States cannot continue to shoot behind the target on critical technologies, address them piecemeal, or only belatedly connect their impact to the future of geopolitics and democracy once the consequences are too obvious to ignore," the report states.

But the US is in poor shape to catch up, having let its manufacturing base shrink and failed to consider or develop good technology governance.

Big Tech and the venture capitalists that funded its rise are partly to blame for the problem.

"The tech ecosystem evolved without reference to a geopolitical rivalry and with relative indifference to the strategic implications of tech developments," the document argues. Venture capital firms sparked plenty of innovation, but focused on making money and not the long-term efforts required to develop national strength. Nor did government run a "moonshot" that would have galvanized industry in pursuit of national goals.

Not that such a plan would have been a sure-fire fix.

"The United States cannot rerun the Cold War playbook and hope it works, because conditions have changed. Rebuilding US strengths and getting ahead of the next wave of technology requires mastering a new geometry of American innovation and harnessing it for national advantage," the report states. "We cannot rest on the laurels of a strong technology ecosystem, a vibrant private sector, or superior ideals to naturally adapt."

The document suggests the US urgently revise its innovation policies and practices to ensure the private and public sectors collaborate, revitalize local manufacturing, develop national AI governance that allows the technology to be harnessed for good, reform its military and warfighting strategies, and work with allies to combat China-led pushes that could embed authoritarian-friendly ideas in global tech standards.

And if the US fails?

The report imagines a future in which "China controls the design and production of solar, wind, and nuclear energy technology and uses its chokehold over other nations' climate transitions as leverage. Its dominance of tech sectors creates powerful platforms and companies that replace US-based companies in key areas including cloud services, social media, and internet search."

Once that happens, more nations come into China's orbit and emulate China's authoritarian governance, even as Beijing gains power to attack their digital infrastructure. China's web giants – and the governance model that sees them censor dissent – dominate the world.

China also achieves military superiority, allowing it to reclaim Taiwan.

Beijing also dominates global payment systems, giving it an insight into individuals' spending and leverage over the global financial system.

The document also warns that technology itself could derail national ambitions.

"The internet's technological evolution is a wildcard in this contest as the push for a decentralized 'web3' built on blockchain technologies could create a new paradigm for restoring a free internet, fizzle out, or be similarly susceptible to government control," the document states.

All of which is scary – and designed to be, because the SCSP sees its role as alerting policy makers to big challenges.

The document calls on them to act now, because whichever party leads The United States from 2025 will need to be ready to act. ®

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