Leon Panetta, former U.S. Defense Secretary and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks during a discussion on countering violent extremism, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, October 23, 2017 in Washington, DC.
The U.S. has not kept up with other countries when it comes to investing in new technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and this is having an impact on how the nation is viewed by other countries such as China, according to Leon Panetta, former U.S. Defense Secretary and one of the speakers at CNBC’s Technology Executive Council Summit in New York.
“There’s no question that there’s a formidable competition going on between the United States and China in a number of areas, and there are increasing tensions,” Panetta said. China is making a number of investments in technology as it tries to extend its influence in the world, he said, while the U.S. has gone through a period where it has not been as competitive as it should be.
“China has made it a point to invest a tremendous amount in artificial intelligence, in quantum, in robotics, and in cyber, and their whole intent is to try to jump ahead of the United States and the rest of the world when it comes to these technologies,” Panetta said.
Efforts are underway to bolster the U.S.’s standing in the technology landscape. For example, the pending United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA) would authorize $110 billion for basic and advanced technology research over a five year period. Investments in basic and advanced research, commercialization, and education and training programs in AI, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology, and advanced energy, amounts to $100 billion.
The need for bipartisan support
The act is aimed at competing with China and to respond to U.S. concerns of an “AI Cold War.” However, partisan gridlock in Congress, which Panetta considers to be the biggest threat to national security, could slow progress in advancing technological development.
“The good news is I’ve seen Washington work, where Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together on major challenges facing the country and get things done,” Panetta said. “But it’s pretty clear right now that it’s going to be very difficult to see any kind of major legislation enacted on a bipartisan basis, because of the politics of the moment.”
It’s important, particularly with regard to national security and issues involving the economy, that both sides learn to work together and find consensus and compromise, Panetta said. Having both sides willing to listen to one another, work together, and find consensus “goes to the heart of what democracy is all about,” he said.
But moving forward with technological development is by no means just a government issue. The private sector is a critical component of the nation’s ability to compete when it comes to technology, said Panetta, whose Panetta Institute for Public Policy is located near Silicon Valley and who serves on the board of Oracle.
“I have seen firsthand the ability of these companies to be innovative, to be creative, to be ahead of the game when it comes to developing new technologies,” Panetta said. “We have to develop a partnership between government and the private sector in order to make sure that we are working together to try to increase our technological capability.”
Some of these companies are among the strongest competitors in the world on the technology front, Panetta says. The need for government and the private sector to work together is especially vital given the fact that the U.S. is facing significant cyber security risks such as ransomware. The federal government needs to partner with private sector businesses to foster advances in information security.
It was Panetta who years ago had warned that the U.S. faced the threat of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” and he said this is now becoming a reality with ransomware attacks such as the one against energy company Colonial Pipeline in May 2021. A significant computer virus launched against the power grid systems, transportation systems, finance systems, and government systems could shut down the country, he said.
The key to dealing with cyber threats from China, Russia, and other nations is to develop deterrents, and show these countries that the U.S. is strengthening its position so that it has the ability to respond to cyber attacks.
The emphasis should be on forging partnerships to improve technology in general, rather than on breaking up “big tech” corporations, Panetta said. “If we try to undermine our technology companies in this country, we are going to be hurting our ability to compete; it’s that simple,” he said.
If, on the other hand, government and technology companies can work together to develop approaches that both sides can agree on, “then America can present to the world a united front that I think can represent a kind of force we need in order to leapfrog technology into the future,” Panetta said. “And that’s what we have to do if the United States is going to remain a world leader.”