Brad Keywell

The next generation of U.S. global leadership in innovation will require closer collaboration between Technology and Defense

Driving on the freeway in the Bay Area today, you might find yourself surrounded by autonomous cars and trucks. Many people associate driverless vehicles with big tech from the West Coast -- Uber, Google, and Amazon, to name a few.

It is less well-known that modern self-driving technology came out of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its long-distance competition for driverless vehicles in 2004.  

Autonomous, intelligent vehicles are just one of the many innovations that have been developed from the long-standing partnership between the defense and technology industries. It’s a partnership that has benefited both sides immensely. This relationship must continue in order to propel American innovation forward and protect our country and allies. Some tech companies have chosen to disengage from defense partnerships, and this disengagement only hurts our country’s ability to lead globally.

The foundation of today’s modern tech industry descends from breakthroughs funded and developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Much more can be traced back to DARPA: email, computer graphics, parallel processing, touchscreens, Siri’s voice, and remotely piloted aircraft (AKA drones) -- even the modern-day internet evolved from ARPANet. The GPS satellites that guide Uber, Lyft and our cars today originally served to improve the precision of military weapons. And of course, Alan Turing’s brilliant work in artificial intelligence during World War Two cracked German cipher codes and saved millions of lives.

At one point, as much as 70% of funding for computer-science research in the United States was coming from the U.S. Department of Defense.  

Despite this long history of collaboration and advancement, employees at some tech companies have raised objections to their products and services being used for national security purposes, arguing that it runs counter to their own beliefs and their companies’ missions.

I recognize that the complexities of today’s emerging technologies shed new light on the partnership between technology and defense. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have raised the stakes, and ethical questions can and should be raised. With facial recognition technologies and other innovations on the rise, human rights, privacy, and data protection are essential issues to address.

It will be vital for stakeholders from both government and tech to come together and develop policy and regulations that can help set ethical standards for artificial intelligence, establish rules across the public and private sector, and protect individuals and privacy.

I believe that disengagement from this long-standing partnership is not the way forward—not for the tech industry, the Department of Defense, the economy or our country. Cooperation between tech and defense is essential.

For the tech industry, the Department of Defense often offers the opportunity to prototype technologies that require more research and development time than the private sector or shareholders can—or want—to provide. Moonshots are encouraged, funded and supported. As noted earlier, many Defense-backed innovations took decades to mature, and now underpin today’s digital economy.

Innovation has led to our economic prosperity more than anything else. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that innovation is responsible for more than half of the increases in productivity. Greater productivity is the foundation of growth, competitiveness and a higher standard of living.

Today, the U.S. is in a race for supremacy in artificial intelligence (AI) against other nations. It is not an overstatement that whoever wins the AI race could potentially write the history of the 21st century. We need to continue to cultivate a strong innovation partnership that generates positive outcomes for both government and private industry in order to maintain our competitive edge.

Many branches of the military are experimenting and investing in AI and partnering with technology firms. My company Uptake is one of those firms, and we are proud to do so. For example, Uptake is working with the U.S. Army, as they leverage our industrial AI software to increase the readiness of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, one of the most widely used military platforms. But there are so many other examples. Special Operations Forces are using A.I. headsets called Halo Sport to assess the effects of neurostimulation and improve physical skills such as marksmanship and strength. And at the end of June, the Department of Defense officially created a new hub for A.I. research, called the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

The United States should always be thoughtful on how, when, and where it uses force. I understand that some people across America have fears and questions about the technology and defense industries partnering together. It is healthy and necessary for our country to have these vigorous, open debates -- and also to move forward together to create solutions.

As the world constantly changes at a dizzying pace, one thing remains constant: Innovation remains the best opportunity for our country to remain prosperous, safe and free. A strong partnership between tech and government is critical -- for the sake of invention and creation, and to ensure that both sides remain in dialogue as we navigate the journey ahead.

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© Brad Keywell 2021