In an era where artificial intelligence is reshaping the playing field, OpenAI’s latest breakthroughs with ChatGPT and GPT-4 signal another milestone. AI technology has the potential to revolutionize a variety of industries, spanning from manufacturing to agriculture, by delivering cross-cutting benefits.
Yet as China’s Baidu
releases their own AI counterpart (ERNIE Bot), America faces a shifting landscape in global competition for emerging technologies. Though ERNIE Bot appears to be inferior to the models from OpenAI, the tables may turn in the near future. The fear of one day ceding ground to malicious actors like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—who seek to upend the international rules-based order—calls for a national talent strategy that encompasses both domestic and foreign-born human assets to fortify American leadership in these technologies.
Nearly two weeks ago, the Reagan Institute released its 2023 National Security Innovation Base (NSIB) Report Card, which gave the Talent Base a disappointing D+ grade. This should serve as a wake-up call to lawmakers on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. As the report card highlighted, the domestic NSIB talent pipeline is slowing down, with an aging defense workforce that lacks diverse talent proficient in emerging technologies. Moreover, the foreign talent pipeline is facing challenges as well, with declines in enrollment from top sources and visa obstacles for foreign professionals.
This situation may not come as a surprise to some who have been closely following this issue in its different forms, whether that be ensuring the success of our modern industrial policy or competing with the CCP in the war for talent. However, what is truly astonishing is the extent of our technological advancement and the slow pace at which we are addressing the skills gap and workforce shortages.
With Congress investing billions in onshoring critical technologies like semiconductors and authorizing hundreds of billions for scientific research through the CHIPS and Science Act, identifying broader issues for this national talent strategy becomes even more critical. When the AI economy reaches maturity, every American must have the opportunity to participate—not as consumers alone but also as technicians, machinists, educators, researchers, and engineers.
A successful strategy, one that ensures robust education systems spanning various disciplines, must also nurture digital skill sets across socioeconomic backgrounds. It ought to stimulate public-private sector collaboration, attract top global talent to support national interests, and prioritize research with societal implications while developing niche technological areas.
The next generation of emerging technology breakthroughs depends upon our ability to identify them in research labs and translate that research into application. The CHIPS and Science Act aims to cultivate a 21st century talent base for just such a purpose by ensuring more Americans are able to pursue a graduate STEM degree. Now, it falls upon Congress to appropriate the funds it authorized last year.
However, a thriving new economy demands more than merely graduates with advanced STEM degrees; skilled technicians for manufacturing and assembly lines are equally vital. In response, increased federal and state spending on skills and trades becomes essential—but federal funds allocated to career and technical education have regrettably dwindled from 11% to 3% over the past decades.
Over the years, congressional leaders have proposed several solutions, like expanding Pell grant eligibility to encompass shorter term education and training programs or incentivizing employer-provided training with $10,000 grants per trainee engaged in on-the-job learning (derived from a concept developed by the highly-regarded American Compass think tank). Alas, nothing has yet reached the President’s desk. But if the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s first hearing this year was any indication, it appears that this issue is top of mind for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle–we may see even more like-minded ideas emerge in the 118th Congress.
Finally, in crafting immigration policies, we must remember that STEM immigration is critical to our national and economic security. China is graduating twice as many students from STEM master’s programs and will graduate twice as many STEM Ph.D. candidates as the United States by 2025. A sole focus on developing domestic talent would leave us exposed to competitors like the CCP; tapping exceptional international professionals remains crucial as we forge ahead in developing a workforce prepared for tomorrow’s challenges.
We cannot compete with a country four times our population by relying on domestic STEM talent alone. The math is incontrovertible: for every percentage point they increase their STEM population, we need to increase ours by four times just to keep up. Last year, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called upon Congress to address this issue, and we’re still waiting.
Challenges abound in this area of competition, but ceding ground to authoritarian regimes is both economically and geopolitically dangerous. America must harness the immense potential of homegrown talents and welcome international expertise via establishing strong STEM education foundations, creating skill development opportunities, and fostering collaboration between public and private sectors. Tackling these issues head-on ensures America remains at technology’s vanguard and maintains our competitive edge against authoritarian competitors like the CCP, securing economic prosperity and cementing global leadership.
America prides itself on its rich heritage, but commitment to adapting in the face of change is equally important—and developing forward-thinking policies that maintain dominance in emerging technologies ought to be paramount—since today’s actions will reverberate for years, decades, and maybe even centuries to come.