Sputnik Moment

At some point in the next few years, and maybe sooner than we think, the US may experience its second Sputnik moment. Many of us don’t remember or weren’t born (including yours truly) when the original moment happened. As the Cold War competition increased in intensity, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite to orbit the earth in 1957 and the reaction in the U.S. was near panic. How had we fallen so far behind in such a key area? Was our model wrong? Were we facing existential doom? I always remember the clip from the Right Stuff with the head of the Soviet Space Program laughing through the rocket blast and the cut to Jeff Goldblum running into a high level government meeting saying, “It’s called Sputnik.”

The response was a concerted effort on the part of the US to reinvigorate the space program and an ongoing obsession with staying ahead of our geopolitical foe (parodied in another film, Dr. Strangelove). By the end of the 60s we were on the moon racing far ahead of any other competitor. A similar situation may be emerging today.

As China invests heavily in Made in China 2025, we could see a comparable Sputnik moment. This time not in space but in artificial intelligence, genetics, autonomy, robotics, or other emerging technologies. As Senator Rubio’s new report points out, the U.S. needs a response in order to stay ahead. Technological development has been the key to our economic and military dominance since the US emerged as a world power. This was especially clear during the Cold War. We might not have been able to match the Soviets in tanks and manpower in Europe but we had first nuclear weapons and then weapons with longer range, more stealth, and better guidance systems to offset the Soviet manpower and material advantage.

Now the challenges for both our economy and the military are precisely those targeted in China 2025. The distinction between the military and economic uses are almost irrelevant. Sure driverless cars will revolutionize civilian transport but driverless submarines and autonomous drones will also revolutionize warfare. Unfortunately it may take a clear case of us falling behind in these technologies to galvanize a truly national effort to compete. Let’s hope that Sputnik moment allows to quickly galvanize a concerted national effort so that we land on the 2030 equivalent of the Moon.