Building a North American Technology Trust

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In a process rife with uncertainty and at times high with tension, the United States, Canada, and Mexico managed to reach terms for a broad new trade arrangement to replace NAFTA. 1

There are inherent difficulties in reaching a free trade agreement under normal circumstances, but negotiations of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) occurred in one of the more contentious contexts in recent memory. 2 Despite what some called hostile rhetoric, a deal emerged.

While each nation must still ratify the deal, which is far from a sure bet, the emergence of an agreement sends an important message that a strong, united North American bloc, anchored by free and open trade between its three largest constituents, remains in the best interest of all parties.3 On the heels of this success, the region should seize this moment to focus on a new endeavor: creating a North American Technology Trust. As nations are already learning, the potential realities brought to bear by emerging technologies—be they greater economic prosperity, displaced and uprooted labor markets, remarkable scientific and medical breakthroughs, game-changing military and intelligence advantages, and considerations yet to be conceived—will have far ranging consequences that test governments’ traditional jurisdictional lane markers and the efficacy of their existing policy tools.

No one country possesses all the capabilities needed to develop competitive technologies. No one country possesses all the critical data required to make the most of these technologies. No one country has the right governing structure to address the risks of untested technologies while simultaneously fostering innovation. The United States, Mexico, and Canada would be wise to take on this mission together.

It is the authors’ opinion that there will be six areas of technology that will play an outsized role in the coming century: artificial intelligence (AI), cyber security, quantum computing, biotechnologies, robotics and autonomous vehicles, and space-based technologies. Increasingly, technologies are interacting and converging with one another, and assessing advancement based on the developments of any single technology may not be the best barometer for measuring overall progress. For example, the use of AI and machine learning systems will play a central role in combating advanced cyber threats and in creating the computer vision capabilities necessary for truly autonomous vehicles. Even if these technologies operated in silos, however, significant advancement in any one of these categories would have a profound impact on the nation, or the group of nations, behind the advancement.

The immense advantages for nations that can quickly and effectively develop and deploy these technologies are enticing enough on their own to inspire a concerted, multi-front campaign of education, investment, research, and development. Supplementing this positive motivation for taking action on these issues are the opportunity costs of not making progress, especially the specter of a strategic rival quickly filling the vacuum. One nation in particular looms large on the playing field.

The Giant Panda in the Room

It is unavoidable that the nature and character of technology that emerges in the coming years will depend on the nation primarily responsible for its development. With no judgment on which we might prefer, a world operating technologies espousing Chinese values will look very different than one operating technologies built with Western norms in mind.

In the eyes of both China and the United States, the emergence of the other as a global leader in a key technology discipline is antithetical to its own future global influence. In this context, each nation views any success by the other in the realm of advanced technological development as an almost existential challenge to its global interests.

The United States’ campaign to prevent Huawei from becoming the world’s telecommunications supplier of next-generation 5G equipment aptly encapsulates how this race for technological supremacy can become conflated with larger narratives, legitimate or otherwise, of national security and economic supremacy. This trend will likely continue.

Adding to the West’s sense of urgency are two critical advantages that China is using to quickly assert its standing in several key technological disciplines. In the world of technology, data is king. China maintains a distinct advantage over most other nations on Earth in this regard based on its population size and the percentage of its people who interact regularly with technology. Other than perhaps India, even if every country experiences complete internet penetration, it is hard to see a path in which another nation would be able to overcome this data disadvantage unilaterally.4

Some suggest that creating synthetic data, which is generated by computers to fill in gaps in data sets, could change this calculus. But this complicated process requires significant computing power, and its use cases are limited.

China’s other distinct advantage is a political one. The Chinese government can make decisions swiftly and place the full apparatus of the state behind given projects, both by utilizing its own public resources and by leveraging its close relationship with the private sector to work toward its stated aims. Furthermore, unlike the West, the Chinese system is less likely to confront challenges related to privacy and civil liberties.

As demonstrated by China’s “Made in China 2025” initiative and its national AI strategy, China has made its intentions clear: it seeks to move beyond its traditional role as a low-value manufacturing and exporting nation toward dominating global supply networks and simultaneously working its way up the value chain. Specifically, China has charted a course forward for developing a core set of technologies including AI, quantum computing, semiconductor and microchip design, telecommunications infrastructure, space-based technologies, and others.5 The “Made in China” plan sets the benchmark of at least 70 percent self-sufficiency in these specified areas by 2025.6 Forced tech transfers for foreign firms seeking to do business in China, a deluge of direct investments into Western firms in key sectors, and mountains of capital funneled into domestic R&D efforts all form a cohesive plan for the coming decades in which China aims to challenge the West for technological and engineering supremacy.7

In today’s world, these disciplines are not wholly independent of one another and critical advantages in one can lead to accelerated progress in another. This too creates a sense of urgency and accelerates the race afoot. If other countries are to maintain privileged positions in the global community, their technological advancement must keep pace with, if not surpass, the Chinese. To do so, nations will need to band together.

North American regional strength

Democracy can be messy and slow, but it has also given rise to a region that houses the world’s greatest universities, the deepest reservoirs of venture capital funds that propel an unrivaled entrepreneurial spirit and support system, and a robust and equitable system of laws that collectively constitute North America’s soft power. While China may possess certain strategic and political advantages today, there is a reason that the West, and North America in particular, has been the epicenter of the breathtaking technological advancement that has taken place over the last several decades.

The United States has been the standard-bearer for classic computing, and still has the deepest pockets and most established infrastructure and talent pipelines, assets of great value to both its northern and southern neighbors. However, those advantages are by no means permanent and the United States must recognize its own shortcomings.

Both Canada and Mexico have much to offer the United States. Canada has a deep history in researching and developing advanced technology concepts, a coherent AI strategy, and a forward-thinking 30-day tech visa program.8 Strategic investments in academia made nearly half a century ago are paying off as Canada’s universities host some of the grandfathers of AI and continue to attract top talent.9 The same is true of Canada’s efforts in quantum computing.

Canada’s national health system also provides troves of data that are more likely to be interoperable and readily machine-readable, and can serve as critical ingredients for algorithmically-driven technologies, such as machine learning systems.

Meanwhile, Mexico has committed millions of dollars in investment to strengthen its domestic startup ecosystem supporting promising entrepreneurs, bolstering its burgeoning venture capital system, and graduating an astonishingly competitive number of engineers compared to its neighbors to the north.10 International firms have taken note and Guadalajara has become one of the region’s most bustling tech hubs.11

Collectively, the triumvirate holds distinct competitive advantages that can propel the region forward and cement North America’s position as the global leader in innovation and technological excellency.

What would regional cooperation of this sort actually look like in practice?

Toward a North American Technology Trust

From tech companies opening facilities across both borders, to cooperation among space agencies, to annual summits and conferences that foster personal relationships among the continent’s best talent, both institutional and individual collaboration among the United States, Canada, and Mexico already exists in many forms.12 For the most part, however, these efforts are isolated from one another, without any grand strategy readily uniting them. Creating a Tech Trust would help codify existing networks and relationships under the umbrella of a broader regional strategy leveraging the best each nation has to offer.

To be successful, this Trust would have to initially focus on four concepts. First, it would need to develop North American innovation incubators and test centers where researchers could access cutting-edge computers and policymakers could seek answers to some of the thorniest tech policy problems. Universities—one in each country—are perhaps the most natural hosting grounds for these centers, but private sector partners will be required in order for them to succeed.

Second, the region would also need to find ways to share more data to feed the machine learning systems society increasingly relies upon. For North America to maintain its competitiveness, it must aggregate the streams of data generated by each nation individually. Not only will this increase the quantity of data available, but also diversify it: a critically important attribute for building well-performing systems in the real world.13 Provisions embedded in the USMCA mandating the free flow of data across borders, disallowing mandates for data localization, and encouraging each government to make its data open and machine-readable open the door to this possibility.14

Similarly, private industry investments across borders make it more likely that robust, transnational data flow will actually occur in practice and that such data streams will become incorporated into the products and services these firms provide. Private industry data, however, is of immense proprietary value and sharing that information for the public good is not in the financial interest of the firms that collect it. This is where a government effort to contribute to some sort of clearinghouse for anonymized data might be useful. It would be advantageous to all if the three countries created data commons that researchers, government agencies, and private sector firms could access.

Third, the region needs to think big about developing a scalable and flexible legal framework for sharing tech ideas. Any such framework must properly balance the occasionally conflicting aims of incentivizing innovation by protecting intellectual property and privileged government information while facilitating trust and openness.

Finally, the region would need to hold an annual summit for policymakers, the private sector, and the research community to take stock of progress to date and develop an agenda for the year ahead. There is no substitute for gathering and meeting face to face. For the region to make significant progress together, an annual meeting hosted by a different country each year will be critical. Additionally, it would be an opportunity to assess funding needs.

Startups are loath to admit that governments play a major role in innovation by providing seed funding for new, disruptive companies. The space industry provides a good example of the symbiotic relationship that can emerge in the sorts of public-private partnerships that the Trust would help facilitate. Some suggest that without critical, early American government contracts, SpaceX (the private rocket and space exploration company founded by Elon Musk), would likely have failed.15 At the same time, as their latest budget reveals, NASA increasingly relies on contracting with private partners, such as SpaceX, to conduct many of its operations.16

On a continental scale, increasing the quantity of both government agencies and private firms who are in the marketplace for solutions and funding would benefit both private and public entities, as well as the broader public (who would ultimately reap the benefits of these efforts). By coming together on an annual basis, governments could measure progress and plan for new investments.

Manhattan Project for the 21st Century

During the height of World War II, rumors circulated that Hitler’s scientists had successfully created a weapon that harnessed the awesome power of atomic phenomena. In response, the United States initiated what would come to be known as the Manhattan Project: an effort to build an atomic weapon of its own. The United States did not embark on this mission unilaterally, however. Rather, it recruited and relied upon two of its closest allies, Canada and the United Kingdom. The United States actively sought out its allies’ talent, resources, and help while entrusting them with the most sensitive information related to the project’s developments.17 The United States’ actions were not the result of a sudden sense of altruism or a desire to make its allies feel important or involved; it was born from a belief that with the outcome of the war at stake, working together increased its odds for success.

Today, America is not in the midst of a war, but rather locked in a long-term power struggle with a peer competitor—one that is often viewed with increasing skepticism and hostility. In large part, the barometer of success in this competition will be relative progress on a range of critical technologies. While we should hope that humanity has yet to realize its greatest potential and that global innovation will be a tide that lifts all boats, the more likely reality is that the fruits of these technological breakthroughs will not be spread evenly. As in any period of flux, the shifting landscape will generate winners and losers. The historical lessons of the Manhattan Project should still ring true: we increase our chances of success if we work together.

Creating a North American Technology Trust is not mutually exclusive of continued collaboration with other allies and partners across the globe. In fact, it should supplement and strengthen those efforts. The United States will miss a significant opportunity, however, if it does not put its full weight behind realizing the potential of North America and codifying existing informal networks and relationships into more efficient engines of funding, information sharing, and research. To tackle the most pressing and complex issues of tomorrow, the United States, Canada, and Mexico must leverage their natural cooperative spirit, born from shared geographies and common values forged through history.

About the Author

Meg King is the Director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She manages the Center’s research agenda on these topics and oversees cutting-edge training programs for U.S. Congressional staff on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. A former senior staffer to the Chair of the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, she has written on topics ranging from ISIS hackers to encryption.

Jake Rosen is a Program Assistant for the Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program, focusing on the intersection of emerging technologies, national security, and the law.

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