Seven Steps Forward
The United States is in danger of losing its technological edge. This is how to gain back ground.
By Vivek Wadhwa
Judging by its efforts to limit the proliferation of China’s 5G technologies, the U.S. government has finally woken up to the competitive threat it faces. 5G will enable the downloading of movies in seconds and connect devices as diverse as pacemakers, toasters, and self-driving cars. It will also alter battlefields by networking tanks and drones with artificial intelligence.
While America has turned skilled immigrants away and reduced investments in the basic sciences, countries like China have continued investing and innovating. Now, in addition to 5G, they could leap ahead in new technologies—for better and worse.
We have already experienced the advances in our computing devices; today’s smartphones have greater computing power than yesterday’s supercomputers. Every technology with a computing base is advancing on an exponential curve—sensors, AI, robotics, synthetic biology, and 3-D printing. As they advance, they also become cheaper and more available to anyone, anywhere. Advancing technologies are globalizing innovation by allowing small groups of people to do what large research labs and governments did in the past.
The good news is that these technologies also play into America’s greatest asset: our entrepreneurs. The national culture of DIY, bootstrapping, and scrappiness gives this country an advantage when it comes to building new technologies and new ways of doing things. The future really is America’s to lose.
Here are seven things that the U.S. should do:
- Revolutionize education. We must use technology to upgrade the way we educate. Rather than doing more of the same—keeping teachers in front of a class—we can create digital tutors that use AI and virtual reality to change the process of knowledge transfer. The teacher can take the role of the coach or guru, and let technology do the teaching.
- Workforce retraining. Artificial intelligence and robots will soon be doing most of the work that humans do, both intellectual and physical. New jobs will be created, but the value will lie in human skills that machines can’t replicate. We must provide our workforce with the advanced skills necessary for thriving in this digital age and inculcate real creativity (fine arts, invention, hypothesis creation, experiment design, music, and writing) with a view to making a living.
- Boost entrepreneurship. The new era belongs to entrepreneurs, who are tackling previously unimagined tasks. Instead of extending unemployment benefits, we should provide lump sums for workers to become entrepreneurs. We need to provide seed funding and create mentor networks and other support structures.
- Empower older workers and entrepreneurs. Venture capitalists and Silicon Valley companies scorn them, but older entrepreneurs do better at building companies to produce complex products than their younger brethren do. We need to unlock more gray-haired value.
- Open the vault of university research. The vast majority of academic innovation that could be converted into viable products and companies fails to see the light of day. We need to fix the tech-transfer process, train professors to become entrepreneurs, and create programs that help bridge the Valley of Death from ideation to fabrication to full-blown production.
- Bring in the skilled immigrants. Half of Silicon Valley’s start-ups of the past three decades were started by people born abroad. Graduating foreign students who commonly made the U.S. their home and contributed their skills to their adopted country now worry about getting work visas. They know that getting a permanent resident visa could take more than a decade, so instead they return home and become our competitors. We need to open our doors to the people who perform highly skilled work, drive economic growth, and create jobs.
- Crowdsource innovation. Billions of people worldwide can now contribute to innovation, thanks to new tools for solving and preventing problems. Effectively tapping the collective mental energies of the world will drive faster economic development in America.
These are by no means the only things we can do to improve the future of this country and restore its position as the unquestioned economic and technological leader. But these steps are impossible without additional government resources or expenditures.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering’s Silicon Valley campus.