Emerging and disruptive technologies are going to have extensive effects on national and international security in the future. Despite the challenge in determining the scale of these impacts on international power, governments must prepare effective security strategies now that incorporate a vision of technology’s impact on the future. In an effort to address the challenges posed by technology, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories in partnership with the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), composed a volume of essays on Strategic Latency and World Power: How Technology Is Changing Our Concepts of Security.

On June 10, the book was introduced at the Atlantic Council with a discussion on Emerging Technologies and the Future of Global Security. Mathew Burrows, the director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, opened the event by illuminating the objectives of the project on strategic latency. The multi-year collaboration continues the NIC’s overarching effort to identify potential future shocks and construct scenarios, as well as understand the extent of nations’ ability to shape these trajectories. Emerging technologies – advanced manufacturing, automatization and the Internet of Things among others – are proving to be key disruptive drivers of the future. In his keynote, Christopher Kojm, chairman of US National Intelligence Council, added to Burrows’ comments by noting how power in the international community is shifting from traditional military and economic power to nations’ ability to harness technological power. 3D printing is transforming global supply chains, allowing customization and manufacturing of all items anywhere, anytime. Advances in bioinformatics will customize medicine for human health. The list of benefits technology allows is endless, but the dark side must also be considered. Kojm noted the possible nefarious military applications, both for conventional arms as well as for novel areas such as biochemical weapons, in the hands of state and nonstate actors.

With that understanding, the book marks a culmination of efforts to calculate next steps for government in the face of rapidly evolving technology, emphasized Frank Gac, a consultant for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former deputy national intelligence officer at the NIC. Bruce Goodwin, the associate director at large of Lawrence Livermore’s Center on Global Security Research, noted the key role of national labs to anticipate future technological surprises and their interdisciplinary approach to develop and understand disruptive innovations – as well as their “wonderful and terrible” applications on national security. Providing a sample of the work in the book, Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego, presented the Chinese approach to strategic latency through technology transfer and exploitation of foreign resources, resulting in sophisticated reverse-engineering of key security technologies. China has had to play “catch-up” on the homegrown innovation front but the government is now committed to investing in fundamental research infrastructure and human talent programs.

The program concluded with a panel discussion on “strategic latency and world power” with Burrows, Zachary Davis and Ronald Lehman from the Lawrence Livermore, and Michael Nacht from University of California, Berkeley. Panelists covered the importance of analyzing the military, political, and economic implications of emerging technologies lest government fall further behind in harnessing technological change. As everything becomes more and more connected and technology continues to outpace government, policymakers, the intelligence community, and those vested in national security strategy will have to work closely with the private sector to build an effective strategy to tackle future challenges. The public sector must also simultaneously monitor the global scientific community to mitigate perilous military capabilities, while promoting positive outcomes and innovation. To do this, inadequate ad hoc and past methods need to be complemented with appropriate new governing mechanisms.

In conclusion, it is increasingly challenging to predict which emerging technologies pose a genuine threat to national and international security especially since cultural norms and innovative uses will arise thus altering preconceived notions of what specific technologies will be used for. Ultimately, as Lehman said, the best way to confront the uncertainties and surprises related to emerging technologies is to focus on diversification and limiting redundancy of capabilities thus making our national security more resilient. Government must learn to be more flexible in its approach to harnessing new technology.