There is a bipartisan bill moving through Congress that has the goal of assessing U.S. leadership in key technologies relative to competitors like China. The bill is called The American Technology Leadership Act. The bill is sponsored by U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.).
The Act would create an Office of Global Competition Analysis to assess how the United States fares in key emerging technologies relative to other countries to inform policy and strengthen U.S. competitiveness. This new office would be staffed by experts from the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Defense, along with the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. The new Office could also draw on experts from the private sector and academia on a project basis. The new Office would support both economic and national security policymakers. The effort would be used to assess U.S. competitiveness in areas like semiconductors and artificial intelligence.
When I read that, my first reaction was that this sounds totally sensible. In a world that has shifted to a global economy, it sounds smart to take steps to make sure that the U.S. has access to the best technologies. We learned during the aftermath of the pandemic how fragile we are to the vagaries of the supply chain or other economic disruptions. It makes sense to have something like a Department of the Future that is tasked with thinking about how new technologies will change our economy and security.
But then what? Is there anything the government can do to change the way that new technology affects the world and the U.S.? A new technology like artificial intelligence is not something that can be curated or directed. The big breakthroughs are likely to come from four smart people in a university lab from somewhere on the planet who strike upon the right solution. The idea of any government somehow controlling the development of any new technology is ludicrous. I would venture to say that the smartest people in the artificial intelligence field have no idea where or when the big breakthroughs will happen. New technologies invariably take a different path than anybody ever anticipated.
The U.S. doesn’t have the best track record of trying to direct new technologies. Just in recent decades, I can recall when Bill Clinton was going to establish the U.S. as the world leader in microtechnology. I remember a big federal push to make the U.S. the world leader in solar power. And folks in our industry all remember the boondoggle that was the government’s big push for winning the 5G war with China.
The 5G story is a cautionary tale about why governments should not meddle with or back new technologies. Seemingly the whole federal government, from the White House, the Congress, and the FCC became convinced that 5G was going to revolutionize the world and that the U.S must have a major role in the development of the technology. It went so far as having real discussions about the U.S. government buying Nokia or Ericsson.
It turns out that the whole 5G fiasco was mostly the runaway result of hard lobbying by the big cellular carriers to get more spectrum. Of course, the carriers were also hopeful of tax breaks and handouts to help them towards the 5G future.
And that highlights the real danger of the government trying to meddle with technology. Studying trends and assessing the impacts of technologies sounds sensible. Making sure the U.S. has a source in the supply chain for new technologies sounds like a great idea after a new technology reaches the market. But it never turns out well when any government goes further. The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. Doing so ends invariably leads to huge government handouts for the corporations involved. But such funding is likely to never produce the intended results – because the worldwide economy and industries are the ultimate ones that can turn new technologies into something useful – and government interference in that process is much more likely to hinder than help new technologies.