Leon Panetta, former U.S. Secretary of Defense 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, D.C. , DC.
According to Leon Panetta, former US Secretary of Defense and one of the speakers at CNBC’s Technology Executive Council Summit in New York.
“There is no doubt that there is tremendous competition between the United States and China in a number of areas, and there are growing tensions,” Panetta said. China is making a number of investments in technology as it tries to expand its influence around the world, he said, while the United States has gone through a period where it has not been as competitive as they should be.
“China has made a point of investing heavily in artificial intelligence, quantum, robotics and cyber, and their intention is to try to outpace the United States and the rest of the world in matter of these technologies,” Panetta said.
Efforts are underway to strengthen the United States’ position in the technology landscape. For example, the pending US 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 the areas of AI, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology, and advanced energy amount to $100 billion.
The need for bipartisan support
The law aims to compete with China and address US concerns of an “AI Cold War”. However, the partisan gridlock in Congress, which Panetta sees as the biggest threat to national security, could slow progress in advancing technological development.
“The good news is I’ve seen Washington working, where Republicans and Democrats are ready to work together on the major challenges facing the country and get things done,” Panetta said. “But it’s pretty clear right now that it will be very difficult to see any major legislation enacted on a bipartisan basis, because of the politics of the moment.”
It is important, especially when it comes to national security and economic issues, that the two sides learn to work together and find consensus and compromise, Panetta said. That both sides are willing to listen to each other, work together and find consensus “goes to the heart of what democracy is”, he said.
But moving forward with technological development is by no means just a matter of government. The private sector is a critical part of the country’s ability to compete on technology, said Panetta, whose Panetta Institute for Public Policy is located near Silicon Valley and sits on the board of Oracle.
“I got to see firsthand the ability of these companies to innovate, to be creative, to be ahead of the game when it comes to developing new technologies,” Panetta said. “We need to develop a partnership between government and the private sector to make sure we work together to try to increase our technological capacity.”
Some of these companies are among the most technologically strong competitors in the world, says Panetta. The need for government and the private sector to work together is especially vital given that the United States faces significant cybersecurity risks such as ransomware. The federal government must partner with private sector companies to drive advances in information security.
It was Panetta who years ago warned that the United States was facing the threat of a “cyber Pearl Harbor”, and he said it was now becoming a reality with ransomware attacks such as one against energy company Colonial Pipeline in May 2021. A major computer virus launched against power grids, transportation systems, financial systems and government systems could cripple the country, he said.
The key to dealing with cyber threats from China, Russia and other countries is to develop deterrents and show those countries that the United States is strengthening its position so that they have the ability to respond to cyberattacks.
The focus should be on creating partnerships to improve technology in general, rather than breaking up “big tech companies,” Panetta said. “If we try to undermine our tech companies in this country, we’re going to hurt our ability to compete; it’s as simple as that,” he said.
If, on the other hand, government and tech companies can work together to develop approaches that both sides can agree on, “then America can present a united front to the world that I think can represent some kind of strength that we need to leapfrog technology into the future,” Panetta said. “And that’s what we need to do if the United States is to remain a world leader.”