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Post-digital technologies and national security: challenge and opportunity

More usable AI can help law enforcement entities neutralize threats, former acting DNI writes

The Pentagon's budget for research and development is expanding by 10 percent.
The Pentagon's budget for research and development is expanding by 10 percent. (Bill Clart/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While private sector demand for emerging technologies is soaring, a recent McKinsey report says that the government is late in adopting them.

We have seen this before: it took the U.S. government a decade — the 1980s — to embrace digital networking. That delay did not matter much, as the rival superpower was feeble in networking and in any case, moribund.

But it matters today, as the United States is faced with diverse and mounting national security dangers, from China to climate change.

Fortunately, today’s U.S. policymakers look prepared to close the gap between private and public adoption of advanced technologies, above all for the sake of safeguarding the nation and its people — government’s highest obligation.

Interest in advanced technologies is strongest in the departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and Treasury, along with the intelligence community and NASA. DOD’s budget for research and development (R&D) is expanding by 10 percent per annum and has grown by a whopping $20 billion to $137 billion from 2022 to 2023. The stated purpose of these investments is to ensure the “sea, air, and space superiority” of U.S. military forces.

At the same time, the security of computer systems, networks, and devices from cyberattacks by state and nonstate hackers, foreign and domestic, is also of increasing importance to the public and thus to the government, which now spends $10 billion on cybersecurity. Ensuring the integrity of social media from manipulation by hostile actors has also become a matter of national security. Tracking and anticipating movements of people, drugs, and extreme weather are more crucial than ever for public security.

In the face of these perils, three “post-digital” technologies are especially important: artificial intelligence, of course; quantum computing and communications; and networked satellite systems. Each is inherently dual-use, with great commercial value and potential to enhance national security.

AI is the most advanced in market penetration because it has been around the longest. Still, a 2022 Brookings report found that the government market for AI remains immature, but with rapid growth likely to come. Nearly all federal government expenditures on AI are for professional, technical, and scientific services, of which 87 percent of contract value is with DOD.

The AI industry serving the government – unlike established defense contractors that furnish large platforms and weapons — is highly fragmented, which means opportunity for startups and private sector innovators. Technology vendors come in all shapes and sizes, yet only 62 of them have more than one contract, while 245 have just one each.

Interest in and funding for networked space systems is of course mainly at NASA and DOD’s Space Force. That industry is made up of established systems integrators (for example: Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin) and private sector space system and services providers (for example: SpaceX).

Quantum is of special interest to DOE insofar as it advances nuclear R&D and capabilities. DOE funding for quantum is $600 million and growing. The IC also is keenly interested in the encryption and decryption value of quantum computing and communications, respectively.

U.S. military forces are being improved for both offense and defense as they become more dispersed, diverse, and integrated by a space-based joint service, all-domain command and control system, or C2. This system can be enhanced by processing data in space, eventually with satellite-borne quantum computers. As U.S, forces shift toward distributed lethality, U.S. superiority in networked satellites will be of paramount importance.

Whatever their purpose, U.S. satellite networks must and can be highly responsive, flexible and secure when adapted dynamically by AI-enabled cognitive systems. Whether in managing space systems, empowering C2, or enabling uncrewed ships and aircraft, AI will be more effective as it is made easier for users themselves to understand and shape.

For government and corporate entities, cyber security will be improved by the real-time knowledge of which measures are known to work best against which threats. Quantum communications can be virtually unhackable because interference with messaging by qubits, as opposed to digital bits, is instantaneously detectable. At the same time, quantum computing will facilitate breaking adversaries’ encryption. Improving the ability of the United States to conduct both defensive and offensive cyber operations will ultimately have enormous impact against state and nonstate adversaries.

Satellite networks capable of computing in space will further improve surveillance of remote borders, coasts and seas for interdicting drugs and illegal migration. More usable AI will help law enforcement monitor and neutralize criminal threats. Worldwide tracking of illicit financial assets and transfers will be more effective when quantum computing is used.

While the government is poised to adopt these technologies, venture capital is vital for finding and financing private sector firms, where new technologies are mostly born and bred, as well as for positioning them for success in the public sphere.

The table is set. Government acquisition systems are being streamlined. Government investment in advanced technologies is primed to grow rapidly. Agile venture capital firms can spot high-potential innovations early on and facilitate success in and across commercial and public markets.

David Gompert is former acting director of national intelligence and currently senior advisor to Ultratech Capital Partners.

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