While We were Tweeting, the Future Happened
David Firestein, the executive director of the University of Texas’ new China Public Policy Center headlined a recent session of our speaker series, The World Spins, with some advice about competing with China.
By Raye Elizabeth Ward
“In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete. China is not our enemy. But it is our most formidable national competitor.”
Firestein, an Austin native who spent 20 years in China with the State Department and another 10 as a senior vice president at the East-West Institute, has no illusions about what’s at stake.
“It’s like a cage match in wrestling,” he explained, where one wrestler, the United States, follows the rules, and the other, China, uses any- and everything to win. And winning means becoming the first country in history to be a brutally market-oriented authoritarian dictatorship.
In a cage match, tweets and tariffs are a poor match against a singularly focused industrial policy and a bill of rights that says: Citizen, you stay out of politics, and we, the government, will make you rich.
One battleground: artificial intelligence and big data
If you’re not reading Jeff Ding’s ChinaAI Newsletter, you should be. Ding, who is a graduate student at Cambridge, shares translations of Chinese policy, strategy and technology. His most recent is a report from boutique private investment firm Rising Investments on China’s Civil-Military Fusion. The report notes that although applications based on artificial intelligence (big data, internet) need time to developed.
- AI military applications still need a lot of time: products for the military industry require “high reliability,” so emerging technology like AI will be used as reserves and not be applied until they are mature, and the related technologies for AI (big data, internet) also have a number of security issues.
- Intelligent weaponry and intelligent robots will have a major impact on the strategy and the tactics of future wars.
China also plans to use the same public-private partnerships that built the American technology sector to achieve its goals.
- China did not permit non-government capital to enter into national defense industries until 2005. They are still looking for the emergence of a 50-100bn military industry private corporation on the scale of say Lockheed Martin.
- The goal is to have over 80% of defense industry information construction technology come from private enterprise. China hopes to reach the first wave of peak civil-military fusion in 3-5 years.
Will political turmoil stifle American innovation?
Without the Dept. of Defense we wouldn’t have the Internet or email, much less venture capital and private equity. Read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s excellent article about the push back against defense contracts among the employees of Silicon Valley technology giants. Sorkin quotes Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and a member of the Defense Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory committee set up under President Barack Obama, said he believed that the partisanship that was contributing to the debate would ultimately stifle innovation.
“I worry that it will stall progress,” said Grant. “Innovation has been fueled for decades by private-public partnerships. It smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Meanwhile, Firestein reminded us, China is in that cage match, its eye on the long-term, even as American strategy changes with an election cycle, from tweet to tweet. It’s hard to win a cage match when it’s unclear what winning looks like.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a major transformation and a technology revolution that is, by an order of magnitude, more disruptive than the internet revolution 20 years ago,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council recently told American Public Media’s Marketplace Report.
“If we don’t get wise to these trends that are reshaping our economy and are going to affect the way we work, live and everything else, the future is going to take us by surprise.”