Using critical technology to build democratic resilience

Using critical technology to build democratic resilience

Machine learning algorithms that process data may not immediately come to mind when we think of Covid-19, but they have strengthened our ability to respond to a disruptive threat. Countries emerged from rolling lockdowns, in part due to simultaneous advances in artificial intelligence and biotechnology that produced mRNA vaccines. As the Australian government rethinks and rethinks its approach to critical technologies, whether policy is technology-centric, capability-centric or a combination of the two will be critical to creating strategic effect.

Multiple factors influence innovation and strategic effect. Exact terms are important. The phrase ‘artificial intelligence’ has proliferated, but it is more accurate to think in terms of developments in data science, cloud computing, machine learning, data protection and intelligent data capture.

The speed at which mRNA vaccines were deployed in 2020–2021 gives the impression that innovation is all about speed. In part this is true: speed is key. But the story of Moderna’s version of the mRNA vaccine began decades ago. Despite successive failures, patent conflicts and side roads, the story seems linear. Long-term bets made by institutions like the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and later by venture capital firms, seem prophetic, not risky.

Across an entire portfolio of technologies, it is difficult to predict what the impact will be or what combination will come together. Governments can set a broad vision, but the vagaries of innovation can make us discount efforts across research, financing, commercialization, logistics, translation and communication and look for moments of solitary genius, not collective endeavour.

The changing parameters of risk and security, especially in relation to economic and geopolitical threats, mean that we are seeing an evolving global consensus on innovation policy.

Countries must navigate increasingly difficult choices regarding operational priorities. Competition between great powers and the weaponization of economic (and data) connectivity fuels conflict over scarce resources. Parallel institutional structures that divide the global economic system and systemic threats such as climate change contribute to uncertainty. Assumptions about the stability of market access along with the security and diversity of supply have shifted.

Around the world, several sovereign innovation funds were announced this year along with other government initiatives aimed at promoting research and development outcomes. Australia’s version is the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund; NATO to invest €1 billion in early stage start-ups; Japan’s ‘Moonshot’ research and development program promotes high-risk, high-impact projects. The Quad leaders committed to convene a business and investment forum for networking with industry partners to expand capital.

These initiatives don’t just channel investment or provide opportunities to downsize projects. In theory, they are a way to ensure that research solves issues facing future society. A 1991 US report on critical technology put the challenge succinctly: if technology is critical, the question is critical for what?

Without a strong sense of mission, we risk not working to solve challenges. Sectors characterized by the rise of platform business models and winner-take-most dynamics dominate research and development. The center of gravity of AI research has shifted from academia to industry. Many sectors, including defense industries and technology areas such as cloud computing, are dominated by a handful of companies.

Market-led opportunities do not necessarily correspond to societal needs or take into account negative long-term impacts, geopolitical dependencies or other ethical considerations. Unleashing algorithms to sell trinkets might oil the wheels of commerce, but if the net result is a floating mountain of plastic in the Pacific, then we need to consider whether our ideas are usefully addressing criticality and for whom.

Government innovation can benefit from fast turnaround times in the commercial sector. Industry tends to favor monetization in the short term, which strengthens the position and creates higher barriers for new entrants. Governments must have sound policy frameworks that provide incentives for industry collaboration, including for small and medium-sized enterprises, that are pulling in the same strategic direction.

The diffusion of technology is intended to drive competition, reduce costs and improve efficiency. These assumptions have shifted due to a deteriorating strategic context. The international playing field is skewed by actors who play by different rules and create rules for themselves—often dishonestly and sometimes criminally. In the defense sector, the proliferation of defense-related technologies must balance goals such as strategic stability and non-proliferation to maintain a military edge while contributing to arms control.

Australia has a strong history of invention, including wi-fi, the cochlear implant, the CPAP machine and the black box flight recorder. The invention of wi-fi involved intense and protracted litigation over patents and technical standards. There are lessons here for Australia’s technology sector, which has been disconnected from standard-setting forums in which it can advance its market reach and contribute to the public good internationally.

The stronger message now is that there is a critical need to define sovereign technological missions and grand challenges, and to fund them appropriately.

Australia’s previous critical technology plan mentioned national security, economic prosperity and social cohesion. These are worthy goals, but the plan provided only a vague point of reference rather than a systematic sense of purpose.

Earlier this month, an indication of where the new government may drive the national conversation about critical technology. With systemic threats continuing – cyber security, climate change, foreign interference – Home Secretary Clare O’Neil has signaled a way forward. The politicization of security over the past 10 years, she noted, ‘hasn’t made us safer’. We have often taken a slap-a-mole approach to risk. In contrast, O’Neil emphasized building resilience. ‘Scalpels, not sledgehammers’, she said, must be deployed to build democracy as ‘our greatest national asset’.

This is a step change. Previously, our critical technology action plan emphasized social cohesion. Building democratic resilience will need more than rhetoric. This shift in mindset will have to trickle down into program and policy. Technology can bring us together, but differences (of opinion, and in approaches to problems) allow democracies to build characteristics and capacities to absorb, recover from, and adapt to disruption.

Meanwhile, Australian innovators are seizing opportunities. Initiatives such as the national medical countermeasures program delivered by DMTC Limited – a defense technology partner – leverage input from government, publicly funded research agencies, industry and academia. Their development of a new pathogen detection technology shows that our biotech capability and capability is world-leading when mission, funding, expertise and capability pull in the same direction. Australia’s health security system will reap dividends in preparedness for future disease threats. Technologies identified as critical to Australia’s national security, such as flow chemistry, are also being developed.

We often chase the shiny and new. But we will need to think harder about democratic resilience and the fundamental role of critical technology in building capacity across systems along with its ability to address and adapt to the cascading effects of system failure. As we strengthen our participation in global forums such as the Quad, Australia can build on this important contribution to shaping global technology policy.

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