Former Google CEO Warns Congress About U.S. Losing Technology Lead

January 30, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, here in Cannes, France, in June 2016, is stepping down as Alphabet’s executive chairman. (Mandoga Media/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Google’s former chief executive officer told Congress Wednesday the United States would lose its lead in artificial intelligence technology to China in less than a decade unless the federal government creates incentives for new research and development.

“In other words, unless trends change, we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more R&D investments, better quality research, wider application of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure,” Eric Schmidt said during a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The committee called the hearing to determine how the U.S. can stay technologically competitive, particularly against China and its rapidly developing economy. Concerns about U.S. competitiveness were shared by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The Chinese government also is closing the U.S. lead in wireless communications, quantum technology and supercomputing, Schmidt told them.

“As the 2020s begin, we should be gearing our policy and legislation to compete effectively in a 2030s world that may look very different,” he said.

He recommended improvements in industry talent development, technology infrastructure and flexibility in government grants.

A failure by the government to act promptly could have “significant consequences for our country’s prosperity and security,” Schmidt said.

However, he cautioned against competing with China in a hostile manner, similar to an arms race. Cooperation could benefit both countries, he said.

Until now, a leading effort to stimulate U.S. technology development was the America Competes Act, which Congress approved in 2007 and President Barack Obama reauthorized in 2010.

The Act increased funding for agencies that promote science and technology, such as the National Science Foundation. It also created incentives for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson said Wednesday the America Competes Act is no longer enough to keep the U.S. competitive.

The Texas Democrat said that “in the last 15 years, the non-defense research and development budget has stagnated.”

Many people have raised alarms about the U.S. “pipeline” for technology but little progress has been made, she said.

“In the meantime, other countries have implemented strategies and invested significantly in their science and technology capacity,” Johnson said. “As a result, they are now retaining and attracting talent that once came to the United States to study, conduct research and build companies here.”

A top legislative proposal for improving U.S. competitiveness was introduced Tuesday by the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. It is called the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act.

The bill would require federal agencies to develop a national science and technology strategy. The agencies would receive more funding for research and technology but they also would need to coordinate more of their efforts to follow the national strategy.

Basic research funding would double under the proposal for the Energy Department, National Institutes of Science and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

“If China surpasses us in critical technologies like quantum information science, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing it will have significant implications for our national security, for our economic competitiveness and for our way of life,” Lucas said in a statement.

He said that while U.S. investment in government-funded research and development dropped by 12 percent between 2011 and 2016, China’s technology development budget increased 56 percent.

“That is a recipe for decline, economically and strategically,” Lucas wrote in a summary of his bill.

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