The “GeoTech Decade” has arrived, heralding a time when technology will have an expanded impact on geopolitics, the economy, and global governance, according to the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Commission. The big question the commission’s members aim to answer: What does it mean for the United States?
There are positive impacts like last year’s expedited development of a COVID-19 vaccine and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s successes on Mars. “There is so much potential, and we’re just scratching the surface,” said John Goodman, chief executive of Accenture Federal Services and co-chair of the GeoTech Commission. But with these new capabilities come increased threats like cyberattacks and the spread of disinformation. Goodman’s concern: “These threats put so much at risk, [like] our national security and economic wellbeing.”
Goodman issued a call to action at an event held by the GeoTech Commission to launch the Report of the Commission of Geopolitical Impacts of New Technologies and Data. He joined leaders from industry and government to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations for achieving global scientific and technology leadership, securing data and communications, enhancing trust and confidence in the digital economy, and more.
So what can the United States do to reap the benefits of the GeoTech Decade and tame the era’s threats? Here are the key takeaways from the conversation.
The United States’ role
- Technology and data will determine the world’s ability to solve everything from climate change to wealth inequality, Goodman said. Thus, he argued that it is a “pivotal moment for the United States to reassert its leadership” with a national strategy, a global partnership with like-minded democracies, and collaborations with industry to “build trust in the digital fabric with which our world is going to be woven.”
- US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) agreed that the United States would need to enlist the help of its partners to think through emerging problems like China and its technology agenda. “Too often, great Chinese technology companies work hand and glove with the Communist Party of China to create a surveillance state, a state that too often is repressive toward the kind of human values and transparency” that democracies represent, Warner said. He added that democracies worldwide should join on “technology development and on making sure that we… participate jointly in setting the rules, protocols, and standards for these new technologies.”
- US Senator Rob Portman’s (R-OH) prepared remarks (delivered by Maurice Sonnenberg, senior international advisor at Guggenheim Securities) pointed out that while the 2021 US National Defense Authorization Act enacted some proposals related to artificial intelligence, “ensuring that technologies are used in ways that also align with our values remains a challenge.” Navigating the implications of technological advancements for US prosperity, he added, continues “to be the work of our policymakers.”
- Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stressed the importance of US leadership in quantum information sciences. It starts by addressing not only security and technological concerns—like the possibility that malicious actors take advantage of vulnerabilities in encryption systems or the general difficulty to build units of quantum information—but also standard-setting. “We want to be in the lead there,” she said, adding that “we need [to] flesh out and understand the national security implications of the use of these technologies by others.” She called on the US government to “develop policies for the sharing of data, findings, and capabilities with our allies and partners in conjunction with relevant federal agencies,” like the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and the Department of Commerce.
Watch the full event
What 2020 taught us about technological change
- Teresa Carlson, president and chief growth officer of Splunk and a GeoTech Commission co-chair, pointed out that during the pandemic, there was a rise in ransomware and other cyberattacks. She explained how data could help cyberattack victims by helping establish “a deeper understanding of what is happening” and assisting leaders in developing policies to plug security gaps.
- The GeoTech Commission Report explored ways to ensure supply chains stay resilient—a recommendation that comes after the pandemic wreaked havoc on global supply chains. “One thing it has taught us is [the extent of our] interdependence,” said former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, adding “in a way that’s good for global trade, but in a way that also exposes vulnerability.” Supply chains are so vulnerable, Chertoff said, not only because of the physical barriers to delivery that were strengthened by pandemic lockdowns and stockpiling of resources like vaccines, but also because supply chains aren’t resilient against cyberattacks such as those against SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange. He called for a US strategy to improve markets and invest in building alternative sources of supply for important software and hardware behind US information-technology infrastructure.
- With accelerated technological capabilities like AI-powered COVID-19 testing and tracing, Zia Khan, vice president for innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation said, “we saw how data and technology will play out in the future.” While this is exciting, it is also an important moment to create policies and foster a way of thinking about technological development to “make sure that innovations benefit everyone,” which requires investing in “inclusive digital public goods,” he said. He added that it is important to not only ensure technology benefits all, but also to reinforce democratic values, human rights, and transparency. “I think that the US has a role to… step up and lead in the setting of the infrastructure and regulations so that we can continue to project the values that are so important to our society around innovation [and] around democracy,” said Khan.
An investment in people as an investment in tech
- The public sector will also have to collaborate with the private sector, Dun & Bradstreet Corporation Senior Vice President and Chief Data Scientist Anthony Scriffignano explained, given the public sector’s ability to reach the public, launch discussions about technology, and improve access to education. “As digitalization continues to accelerate, the divide [in access] gets bigger,” explained Scriffignano. “There’s no guarantee that access to technology is going to be in any way better even tomorrow if the public sector and those in the private sector that can help enable that don’t focus on this problem.”
- Goodman noted that as technology like AI changes the future of work, “employees increasingly will have to become technologists or at least comfortable with technology when it comes to delivering their work,” and that companies will have to be vigilant in how they develop, train, and apply AI to guard against bias and misinformation. “Explainable AI becomes very important for transparency and for trust,” Goodman said, so “having a workforce with digital fluency is a critical priority… from getting more people access to broadband and early STEM education, and creating digital literacy education, to expanding access to opportunities and cultivating talent in underserved communities.”
- Sonnenberg and GeoTech Commission Executive Director David Bray stressed the importance of linking the commission’s work to US foreign policy efforts on tech and data investments. Bray said these efforts must advance with the mantra of “be bold; be brave; be benevolent” for the future ahead.
Katherine Walla is the assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.