Global Technology Competition in the Age of AI

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on January 24, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Gregory C. Allen: Good morning. I’m Gregory Allen, the director of the Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Today we’ve got Senator Todd Young and Senator Michael Bennet joining us for a conversation on “Global Technology Competition in the Age of AI.” This is a topic that’s on everyone’s minds here in Washington, D.C., where AI and its effect on geopolitics continues to feature in just about every major discussion we have. Senators, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Senator Todd Young (R-IN): Thanks for having us, Greg.

Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO): Thanks for having us.

Mr. Allen: So I want to begin by talking about global technology competition in the larger sense. What are the stakes of this competition, as you see it? And if it’s all right, Senator Young, I’ll start with you.

Sen. Young: Certainly. The stakes are – they’re, first, enormous. And our very values and way of life are at stake. I know that that seems perhaps overwrought to some, but as you look throughout history differential rates of growth between different countries or regions, and differential rates of technological development – which, of course, is related to their rates of growth – have led to different levels of military power and military success in their campaigns. So our ability to defend our way of life is at stake here. 

But it’s not just that. It’s also our material welfare. As so many modern technologies are dual use – that is military use as well as private sector use – our productivity as an economy, and therefore our wealth as individuals and households, is very much tied to our advancement in modern technologies. Which is why it’s incredibly important that we’re investing in these technologies, we’re investing in people to design, develop, make these technologies, and we’re ensuring that as these technologies are developed our values are embedded in them. And we can, perhaps, tease that concept out later. 

Mr. Allen: Terrific. Senator Bennet, anything you would like to add?

Sen. Bennet: Well, I’d like to just add that I agree with everything Todd Young just said. (Laughter.) The first part of it is – at least in my mind – is how important it is for us to understand, in a world that’s moving as fast as this world is and technology is moving as fast as the technology is – where can the United States compete? And where do we want to be able to continue to compete? The place where I realized this was a real problem was sitting on the Intelligence Committee.

And there was just one day that, you know, arrived, when the committee realized that China was exporting – Beijing was exporting telecommunications technology all over the world, in the form of Huawei’s hardware, and the West had – we didn’t have a competitive offering. And European countries and other companies were embedding – basically embedding Beijing’s surveillance state in their infrastructure, as a result of that lack of offering from the West. And everybody in the committee looked at each other and said: How is it possible that this is happening?

And the difficulty with it was that we didn’t have any industrial process set up to compete. So that’s one – just one modest example of the challenge, a real-life example the challenge. And then, to just finish, I couldn’t agree more. This is an issue of values, you know? It’s an issue of what kind of world we want to live in. Beijing – there was a time in these – in panels like this, on think tanks in Washington, D.C., when American politicians were saying: Hey, man, this is going to be great. When the internet hits China, they’ll democratize. You know, they will – they will change the way they approach the world as a result of technology.

The opposite has been true. They have used this technology, the internet and other technology, to concretize their surveillance state. Not just in China, but around the world. They’ve exported that surveillance state around the world. That’s what they were trying to do with the Huawei technology I mentioned in Europe. We need to make sure that is we develop these new technologies – where Todd Young has been such a leader on AI, for example – that we’re doing it in ways that are actually compatible and consistent with our values. And then we’re offering humanity something that looks a lot different than what Xi Jinping is offering them with this technology. So I think there’s a – the essential nature of, I think, humanity is at stake here.

Mr. Allen: Senator Bennet, you very persuasively talked about this moment, you know, the wake-up call that you had, that we were in the midst of this technology competition with China. And, you know, during the Cold War, the United States had an overarching strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in containment. And this was a strategy that was pursued across multiple presidential administrations, across multiple decades, mostly consistently. And I’m curious, you know, do you already have a sense of what the high-level strategy should be for the United States in this technology competition with China?

Sen. Bennet: You know, let me say, I don’t think it’s probably containment. But, you know, we’ve sort of – we’re in a different world than Kennan was in. But I do think something you just said is so important, I want to underscore it. And that is that during the Cold War, every president knew what their job was vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. They knew what their job was with respect to the transatlantic alliance. You know, and it wasn’t that we didn’t have different opinions or the different parties didn’t see it differently. But each president knew what their job was going to be. We’re facing exactly that same thing in the world today, certainly with respect to Beijing and certainly with respect to the technology competition that we’re in, and as Todd mentioned a lot of this stuff is dual use.

So I’m not saying we should be containing China. I don’t think they can. They’re too integrated in the global economy and that would create too much hardship across the world. But when I think, again, about my spot on the Intelligence Committee and seeing how China has built a space capability over the last 10 or 15 years that’s based on stealing our technology it does sort of raise the question how would we have approached this differently in an era of containment, and I think we would have focused heavily on the kind of R&D that Todd talked about a minute ago, on the one hand, and on the other hand we would have made sure that we had the sort of export controls in place that we weren’t blithely sending or not even asking the question about what we were sending to Beijing for them to be able to build that space capability.

So I think we’re going to be in an integrated economy with China for the rest of our lives but I think we have to do a much better job over the next 50 years of developing our own technological leadership and doing what we can to make sure that we can slow down their pace or at least that they’re not stealing our IP at every drop of the hat, which is what they have been doing over the last decades.

Mr. Allen: So, Senator Young, you know, if containment is perhaps not the right strategy for this era that we’re in what is the right strategy?

Sen. Young: My views align very much, it won’t surprise you, with Michael’s.

I would just say some points of emphasis. We can learn from the last several generations of foreign policy making what has worked, what hasn’t worked. One of the things that certainly worked is making sure that we harnessed, we cultivated, our dynamic economy, the dynamism which has long been a hallmark, a feature, of the American economy and more broadly sort of the Western economic approach is something that we have to be very sensitive to.

That means having forgiving tax rates, inviting regulatory atmospheres, and making critical investments in our people so that they can be productive citizens and add to our national power by extension.

Another piece of this is, relatedly, allies and partners. We learned during the Cold War, during the period of containment, just how important it was to have allies and partners, how to dig your well before you are thirsty, geopolitically speaking, and nurture those relationships.

If we can do that within the context of a democratic capitalist system we’re inviting more people into that system if they want to participate and we’re not only adding to the wealth of the counterparties of different countries but we’re also building that connective tissue for securing that system through military power if necessary.

And then, lastly, I do think we have to place some emphasis on at once starving the economy of state capitalist authoritarian regimes like China of the critical inputs that they are trying to advance in order to undermine that system I just spoke to, inputs like leading-edge semiconductors, with the recognition that it is a state capitalist economy – that some folks within our system will always want to trade with them and in light of that reality the American people should have the opportunity to trade certain goods and services as well.

I’ll say this is where standard setting becomes very important, standards within the broader system but also standards within given technology areas. As it relates to computer chips, for example, if we can come up with standards for development that require the Chinese, for example, to abide by those standards if they want to trade into this massive non-Chinese economy they’re going to have to abide by our standards as it relates to things like artificial intelligence, privacy, bias, consumer protection, and so forth.

So that is – that’s one reason why it is so important that, as Congress talks about artificial intelligence and so many other platform technologies like synthetic biology, that we get this right.

Mr. Allen: So there’s a bottomless list of issues that need to be addressed as part of technology competition, but one of the reasons why we were so excited to have the two of you here is that you’ve cosponsored a piece of legislation, the Global Technology Leadership Act, that is intended to address parts of these issues – not the whole issue, which as I said is bottomless. But I wanted to ask, what’s your motivations for this legislation? What is the problem that it’s trying to solve? And, Senator Bennet, if I could start with you.

Sen. Bennet: Yeah. Well, the motivation came out of that experience that I had on the Intel Committee on 5G, you know, and realizing that we had no – we had – maybe one part of government had some sense that they were doing what they were doing with telecom, but another didn’t. We had no idea what the private sector’s view of any of this was. And it occurred to me that we should put together some sort of institutional framework to be able to basically do an annual net technology assessment where we could look and say: OK, where are the U.S.’s strengths and where are our adversaries’ strengths; where are the U.S.’s weaknesses, where are our adversaries’ weaknesses; and consider how to approach that in a strategic way and, as I said earlier, from administration to administration so that it didn’t matter whether there was a Republican or a Democratic president, but that the DNA for dealing with this was built into the structure of our government.

And I think that, as you said, the notion that this is a bottomless pit is a reality because you got to make decisions about what really matters and what doesn’t. You got to make decisions about what mattered yesterday and what doesn’t really matter today. And I think Congress is institutionally really poorly situated to do that kind of analysis, you know.

Mr. Allen: (Laughs.) That’s charitable. (Laughter.)

Sen. Bennet: Yeah, to be charitable about it. And I think then you – better to have a group of people that are – that are assigned the task of reporting to the administration and to the Congress, and who are set up in an institutional way to be able to deal with the rapid changes that are happening in technology so that we’re not studying stuff that’s obsolete or doesn’t matter anymore. And so – and it matters not just where we are; it, obviously, matters where we are in competition with Beijing when it comes to things like AI, when it comes to things like quantum, when it comes to things like telecom.

So that was – that was the idea for the – for the office. I’m very, very glad that Senator Young has been willing to be my cosponsor of this bill. And I think between the two of us we’re going to find a way to get it passed. Every day that goes by you feel the pressure building and building to try to have something institutionalized here so that we know that we’re actually not falling behind.

Mr. Allen: And, Senator Young, so the legislation would create an Office of Global Competition Analysis to –

Sen. Young: Yes.

Mr. Allen: -as Senator Bennet said, produce this technology net assessment every year or something equivalent to that. And I just want to ask you, you know, what are the sort of problems with the information and analysis available to policymakers and policy implementers that this office and its work is going to help solve?

Sen. Young: Yeah. Well, thank you. And Michael has shown tremendous leadership in this area: conceiving of this vision, consulting with stakeholders, bringing me in. Thank you. (Laughter.)

Sen. Bennet: That was easy to do.

Sen. Young: And so I’ll try and do my part.

But, no, listen, one of the things that as I began speaking with Michael about this that I learned early on is that for some period of time, members of Congress and other stakeholders who interact with our government or within government had been trying to give clarity on our disposition as it relates to other countries when it comes to particular tech areas. Where are we weak? Where are we strong? Where are the particular weaknesses and strengths? Where are investments needed? Where are our vulnerabilities? And so forth. And increasingly – which is one of the reasons for this forum – we’re finding this is a major area of policymaking.

But there wasn’t a particular go-to area within government to aggregate this information and to put it in a consumable fashion for members of Congress and others. So some had proposed creating a new intelligence department within the Department of Commerce, something I’m open to but it does seem as though we have a constellation of different intel agencies. It seems to me this is a more modest approach, and therefore more likely to ultimately see its way to passage, but exactly what’s needed, which is an assessment of all the things I just indicated, and on an ongoing basis, as opposed to something like the House China Committee, which has been a very visible and, I think, constructive bipartisan committee over the last year-plus. However, it’s temporary. It’s temporary, and therefore its charge is limited. And no doubt, it will be – there will be consideration of closing it down at some point. So I think it’s quite clear to me that we’re going to need, at least for the next generation, perhaps in perpetuity, analysis along the lines of the Office of Global Tech Analysis.

Mr. Allen: Terrific. Now, this office that you’re proposing to create would exist within the executive branch, but obviously Congress has plenty of role to have in this. And so I’m curious, you know, not just looking forward but also what has happened over the past several years, you know, what does effective congressional action look like in this technology competition? Are there success stories that you would point to? And, Senator Young, if we could continue with you?

Sen. Young: Yes. I think you look back to the Cold War, the early days of the Cold War. Congress was able to get passed – actually Congressman John McCormack, who later became speaker of the House, introduced and was able to persuade his colleagues to pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which established NASA. That took some money. That took, in retrospect, a modest amount of money, when you consider the fact that our economy spins off trillion-dollar value added each year in the aerospace industry, which was certainly catalyzed by that creation of NASA.

So much – it’s very analogous to what we’re seeing now, which is the area of space and space technology became a dual use – that as commercial as well as governmental – area of technology. I think we’re seeing the same thing with respect to many different tech vectors right now. And so if we can make the critical seed investments where necessary, if we can come up with a favorable regulatory atmosphere so that our commercial partners are able to thrive, there are upside benefits for the American people not just in terms of national security, but also the commercial applications.

Mr. Allen: You mentioned the legacy of Congressman John McCormack and his work on founding NASA. That event, of course, was in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. It was that same time period when we created what would ultimately become the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, legendary technology institution. My favorite piece of legislation that came out of that sort of post-Sputnik whirlwind was the National Security Education Act, where we literally as a matter of national security radically overhauled the high school curriculums on science and engineering, and dramatically improved the education and our output of those types of people. And additionally, we increase the number of graduates in scientific and engineering fields, because we recognized – Sputnik told us, we’re in the midst of a major science and technological competition. And we have to be willing to make the investments in education in order to win.

Senator, I know that you have a background of education. And I’d love to get your perspective on this.

Sen. Bennet: It’s such a – I mean, there’s so much to talk about here. When I became the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, one of the things I noticed was how terrible our – how poorly our students were doing in mathematics.

Mr. Allen: That wasn’t during that era, just to clarify.

Sen. Bennet: Huh? Well, no. Although, during that era – (laughter) –

Mr. Allen: Not that old. (Laughs.)

Sen. Bennet: I was smiling when you were talking about NASA, because during that era I can remember everybody – you know, people asked the question: What do we get out of government? You know, back then, as a kid, you could have said Tang. You know, we got that out of the government. (Laughter.) It wasn’t mocking. Like, that was a good thing. And we had gotten –

Mr. Allen: Right.

Sen. Young: Astronaut ice cream.

Sen. Bennet: Exactly, out of the space program. And the American people knew that that was just – those were little examples of other things that we were getting.

When I became the superintendent in Denver, I looked at the remediation rates for our kids in mathematics, and they were staggeringly high. You know, even kids that were graduating, going to college, needed remediation in math. And I started to look. Well, why is – what’s caused this? And the answer was that for our high school requirements, we were only requiring kids to take two years of math, ninth grade and tenth grade, unless they passed the algebra exam in the eighth grade. In which case, we said: Your reward for being the best mathematician in our – in your class is you only have to take one year of math.

So we were sending a signal to our strongest mathematicians: We don’t need you to be in a place where you can compete. You know, today, to get out of the Denver Public Schools, you need four years of math. And if you take that earlier, if you pass that algebra exam, you get higher-level math before you leave.

We are in as much as a competition as we were in those days when we made the kind of commitment that we made, the national commitment we made to raising academic standards in this country. We are in that place again today. The difficulty for us is we live in a democracy, you know, and we are competing with countries around the world that are organized very differently than we are. I would never give up our democracy. I’m a huge believer in the innovation that Todd talked about in our economy and a huge believer in the rule of law, a huge believer in our commitment to fight corruption, all of the kinds of things that our adversaries around the world don’t have, and – but I do want us to be able to compete effectively with their state-sponsored capitalism, their form of that. That’s going to require us to be able to work across the public and private sector in a unified effort in a democracy to be able to compete, and I think we can do it. This office is one of those examples. Todd’s leadership on the – on the CHIPS Act, you know, which is a huge success of this Congress, is a – is a modern-day example of the kind of investment that we have to make. And I would just add on top of that the investment Congress recently made in making sure we have broadband built out to this entire country is not only going to be able to – I mean, the country will compete. Parts of the country that have historically been left behind, especially rural parts of this country – where there’s a lot of brainpower but people need to be connected to the internet to be able to compete – are now going to be able to compete as a result of that.

Sen. Young: So if I could just build on that, I think we need to use this generational, perhaps multigenerational competition of values between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party to become a better version of ourselves and to give the American people a stake in this. That is what I see as the endgame of this effort from members of Congress. So if we can focus on that lodestar - A, how do we win, how do we win economically and by extension militarily and technologically; but, B, how do we give every American an opportunity to meaningfully participate in this hyper-dynamic, technology-oriented economy and the China competition – then we will win. We will win this generational competition, we’ll defend our values, and we’ll become all better off in the process.

And I think that’s happening. I think this initiative, though seemingly narrow, to create this office will lay a predicate, if we can get it established, for more action once we identify weaknesses in our technologies as it relates to various high-tech areas.

Mr. Allen: So, Senator, you were paying homage to some of your forebearers in Congress just a moment ago, but I do want to give you the opportunity to celebrate some of the achievements of this Congress, namely the CHIPS and Science Act that Senator Bennet just talked about. Is this an example of the type of analysis that this office would produce that would inform these kinds of legislation, making historic investments in American technological industries? What do you see as the lessons of the CHIPS and Science Act? Is this a replicable model?

Sen. Young: I do – I do see this as the sort of area that would lend itself to this kind of analysis. However, I would say the semiconductor deficiency we had in this country, the vulnerability we had within our supply chains, at least in retrospect was pretty obvious. It’s stark, the vulnerabilities we had. It will be less clear in some other areas, which is why the discernment of people within an office would be helpful.

But what has the result been? Well, the money to entice a production ecosystem for semiconductors is already flowing, but the mere signal by passing the CHIPS and Science Act and signing it into law that has been created has led to over $200 billion of private investment being unlocked. That is an enormous return on our investment, and we’ll just continue to see more of those investments occurring in coming years. And the excitement, the human dimension here, the excitement which Michael just spoke to eloquently of our young people to become involved in a technology economy and to see themselves playing a role – perhaps as a technician, perhaps as a postdoc, you know, actually designing some of these high-tech components – it’s really been significant my own state, where you’re starting to see a semiconductor and a hard tech economy developing, but also in states across the country. And so to me, that’s very promising.

Mr. Allen: So, just staying with the CHIPS Act for one moment, you know, this is one of the most remarkable industrial policy investments that the United States government has made in decades, frankly. And already, we’re seeing around $50 billion being devoted to the semiconductor industry over the next five years or so. But I just wanted – because we’re having a conversation about technology competition, I wanted to ask that, you know, the Chinese consulting firm JW Insights, they tallied up the amount of subsidization that Chinese semiconductor firms get from all their provincial governments, from their city governments, from their national governments. And they estimated that Chinese government subsidization of the Chinese semiconductor industry is around $64 billion per year. You know, more than we’re spending over the next five years. And so I just want to ask, is what we’re doing enough? Or is there something else that needs to be done as well?

Sen. Young: Well, we know it’s enough for now because of the numbers I spoke to, because the private sector monies that are being unlocked. It’s something we continue to assess, but we continue to assess it with the knowledge that the Chinese investment numbers and the American public investment numbers will never align, because their system is much different than our own. We have the broadest, deepest capital markets in the world in all of human history. We have efficiencies that a market economy demands. We have numerous benefits that they don’t, including a constellation of allies and partners with whom we can work. So the virtues and the benefits of comparative advantage still apply to this industrial policy, just not to one large economy country by the name of the People’s Republic of China, right?

So all of those differences need to be taken into account as we implement this law. But there are other technology areas – I think Michael understands, and increasingly my colleagues are coming to understand – where we are going to have to make investments. Particularly investments in human capital, which historically the federal government has done, and done well. But also some incentives from here and there in basic infrastructure and research. And we’ll get more clarity on those things in the future, perhaps through the Office of Global Tech Analysis. But I think it’s somewhat an apples and orange comparison, the Chinese versus American investments.

I will say, it’s helpful to focus our minds. It does keep us focused on the challenges here. And we can’t take for granted our ability to win this competition.

Mr. Allen: Keeping with the topic of semiconductors for a moment, you know, the CHIPS Act is obviously the most important offensive maneuver that we’ve taken here, promoting U.S. and strengthening U.S. industry. There’s also some defensive measures that we’ve taken to address China’s semiconductor sector and its relevance to the AI sector. So in October of last year, the Biden administration released a new set of export control regulations, that were, in some ways, a reversal of 25 years of trade and technology policy towards China, actively restricting China’s access to advanced AI chips, the semiconductors that power advanced AI models, and also restricting China’s chipmaking equipment purchases from the United States. So I wanted to ask, do you support this policy? Is this a policy that’s sort of indicative of what you’re thinking about when you think about technology competition?

Sen. Bennet: I definitely support that policy. And I think that it’s really more like 50 years of policy that we’re now beginning to unravel, because there was here, I think, a consensus – in fact, they used to call it the Washington consensus – that we were going to have a system of free trade around the world that somehow was going to inure to the benefit of everybody. And in ways, it turns out, that it really didn’t. You know, and we were competing not in a – on a – on a fair or a level playing field. We have been competing all these years with China’s version of state-sponsored capitalism. That’s really different than capitalism. That’s really different than free trade.

And the United States, I would say, in some sense, surrendered in that – in that version of state-sponsored capitalism. We did not compete effectively. And the kind of export controls you’re talking about, I think, are a part of an effort for us to say, OK, we need to compete effectively. We need to have a level playing field. We don’t need better than a level playing field. I think it’s OK that they’re spending more money in some sense than we are in certain kinds of sectors, because we’re going to beat them so badly in terms of innovation, we’re going to beat them so badly in terms of our technological leadership.

If we just organize our thoughts in ways that make sense, where we’re making the investments here, where we’re being thoughtful about the kinds of export controls that you’re talking about, where we’re making sure that technology is being developed in ways that are consistent with our values and our freedoms and our commitment to, to democracy. And where we are – and Todd mentioned this earlier – where we are making sure that we are transmitting this technology to our partners around the world so that they can have the benefit of developing it as well, both for commercial use and for – and, in some cases, for dual use, so that we know they’re not relying on Beijing. I think that’s all to the good. But it’s going to require us to be much more strategic about this than we have been for the last 40 or 50 years. And I look at those export controls exactly in that context.

Mr. Allen: Please.

Sen. Young: If I could build on that. And that’s how I regard this follow-on comment, as a building on statements with which I agree. But I do want to sort of underscore that our belief in trade, in international trade, in the virtues and benefits to the American people of comparative advantage, should not change, in general. I would regard China as an exception to what is otherwise a very healthy and important force. In fact, I think the one missing element – for all the commendation I have of my counterparties on Republican and Democrat side of the aisle for this industrial policy – the one major infirmity of the current policy is that we have not further opened up the avenues for trade. In fact, we’ve gone the opposite direction. And therefore, we’re not harnessing – fully maximizing the benefits of comparative advantage with Japan, with the European Union, with countless innovative economies around the world.

So we can do both. We can – we can place strictures on the export of high-tech components and dual-use components to a state-capitalist regime, like the Chinese Communist Party. But we can also continue to trade robustly, and to adjust those trade policies based on risk assessments, interruptions of supply chains, moving forward. So that’s a nuance that is sometimes lost in the reporting and, I think, the analysis of what needs to happen to move forward. It may or may not be an area of disagreement, but I will say – as it relates to the politics – trade is not easy on the left or the right these days. So I want to continue to make an argument for trade.

Sen. Bennet: It’s all – and it’s not an area of disagreement with me. I agree. So let me add a grace note of my own. Which is that I think in our hemisphere there is an enormous opportunity for us. And in our trading relationships with Canada, with Mexico, with Latin America generally.

Mr. Allen: Mmm hmm, nearshoring.

Sen. Bennet: Exactly. To be able to say, look, we’re 330 million people. How are we going to compete effectively in this landscape that we’re talking about? Integrating ourselves much – in a much more compelling way in our hemisphere, along the kind of trade principles that Todd was talking about, I think gives me – I mean, I just think that’s a place with enormous potential for us. And we’ve talked about that here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies before.

I got to add one last thing too, because this is another place where the left and right is breaking down on this. That’s on immigration. You know, immigration has been such a core strength for this country, when it runs well, in terms of technology in particular. You think about the leadership of the technology companies all around the United States. And, by the way, Beijing doesn’t exactly pursue the same immigration policies. There’s nobody crawling over the Gobi Desert – (laughter) – to try to get there. They are trying to get here.

And we need to – I would just – it’s just a reminder that once we get past the issues that we’re confronting right now on immigration, we need a long-term policy that reminds us that a third of our economic growth for the last hundred years or so has come as a result of immigration, two-thirds of it has been organic. And it’s a critical component to the kind of stuff that Todd and I are talking about.

Sen. Young: We are singing from the same hymnbook there. It would be a lot more interesting if we disagreed right now. (Laughter.)

Mr. Allen: Well, you made some really exceptional points on trade and immigration. I do want to – you know, because this legislation that you’ve introduced kind of relates to the analytic analysis capacity of the United States government and its ability to understand what’s going on in the technology ecosystem and then make great decisions from it in a timely fashion there is one Cabinet secretary out there begging for this right now and that is Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and I’ll just paraphrase, you know, her words on this topic.

She said that export controls 10 years ago were a comparatively sleepy topic in U.S. national security, and then with the moves taken by the Trump administration, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the Biden administration export controls on China’s semiconductor sector suddenly export controls are one of the hottest topics in U.S. national security and especially technology competition, and she’s pointing out that her budget for analysis and enforcement is flat or perhaps even declining in inflation adjusted terms.

And so I just wanted to ask – you know, if I can get your reaction to Secretary Raimondo’s comments.

Sen. Bennet: Well, I think she’s living in the 21st century and that’s where they’re doing the work. I’d say that this is one of the reasons why I think Todd’s idea and my idea is a good one because they could – it could help us think about things like, you know, when budgets need to be increased to do certain things, to be able to make us more competitive globally in terms of technology.

So I don’t want to – I’m sure if Gina is asking for it she probably has a good reason to be asking for it and I’ll look at it. I think much more broadly this is exactly the reason why we need some people in the federal government that are devoted to these questions and can provide answers to the Commerce Committee or to the Intelligence Committee or to an administration that says if you really want to solve this problem you could make some investments in the following ways that could really help us get it done.

Mr. Allen: And, Senator Young, do you have a perspective on Secretary Raimondo’s, you know, request for more resources to make a more muscular export control posture?

Sen. Young: I do, and in fact Chairman Michael McCaul of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House has put together a report on this very matter and they recommend investing in her capabilities but also identifying some efficiencies so that we don’t have to spend an additional dollar of taxpayer money on things that aren’t needed.

We cannot fall victim to this visceral small-L libertarian impulse not to ever invest in government, especially critical functions like this one. But at the same time we have to husband the resources of our constituents wisely.

And so I think Chairman McCaul’s report will guide us in that direction and I agree with Michael, however, that we could get more clarity on these matters on an ongoing basis and not have to wait for a crisis, which is what this might be characterized as, within the Department of Commerce, if instead we had some early warning through a dedicated office to analyze such things.

Mr. Allen: So, obviously, the export controls that we’ve been talking about are targeting China’s artificial intelligence sector. One of the most important initiatives in Congress right now on artificial intelligence is the bipartisan Group of Four of which you are a member with the AI Insight Forums working towards comprehensive AI legislation.

I wonder if you could just give us an update on where you are in these efforts, Senator Young.

Sen. Young: It’s always dangerous to have expectations heightened in this town and in this political atmosphere. But I think we have made a valuable contribution to Congress’ understanding of what artificial intelligence is and both the opportunities and the challenges that it will present to our national security, to our civil rights, and all kinds of other things.

But the upside potential is amazing. We, the Group of Four, as you have styled it, have invited in members of the Senate as well as their staff for a number of months and we took notes – extensive notes.

We are in the process, the four of us and our offices, of distilling those notes in readable fashion, identifying common interests and areas where we might legislate. But, ultimately, it’s our intention – and Senator Schumer has been very clear about this – to charge the committees of jurisdiction with legislating, making the Senate work.

And so we on the Republican side intend to hold him to his word and I expect him fully to keep it as he did during the CHIPS and Science Act debate. And in short order I think you’ll see some committees of jurisdiction holding hearings, markups, and trying to pass and send to the floor bills related to making sure we strike the right balance between regulating the risks on one hand, but enabling the innovation on the other.

Mr. Allen: And just to make sure I understand you correctly on the output of this process, when Senator Schumer announced this initiative actually here at CSIS last year, he described one of the outputs as comprehensive AI legislation. But what you’ve described, it might not just be one bill; it might be many bills. Is that fair to say?

Sen. Young: That is fair to say. If you look back on the regular order sort of CHIPS and Science process that we took, Senator Schumer and I had a base piece of legislation that we had developed – began as the Endless Frontier Act and became something else – and then members, through their thought leadership, were able to pass their own bills through various committees. And then it was aggregated together on the floor with multiple iterations in that case, and ultimately became the CHIPS and Science Act. But we expect something similar to happen here.

There are already members who have put forward I think a lot of strong and thoughtful solutions to different challenges and opportunities we have, and want to – rather than duplicating those efforts or supplanting them, we want to actually complement their efforts with our own legislative efforts.

Mr. Allen: Well, I had the privilege of participating in one of these insight forums that you’ve put on.

Sen. Young: It was great to have you. Yeah.

Mr. Allen: And I was amazed because there were senators not only on the dais, but there were senators in the audience listening to hours to executives in the AI sector, to academics and scholars who study these issues. The hunger to learn is really palpable in Congress right now.

Sen. Young: Well, and you know, that’s one of the things that the vast majority of my colleagues, you know, share with Michael, myself. We have a thirst. We have a hunger to learn new things, to come up with solutions to problems. And oftentimes our standard committee hearings, where television cameras are there and members have five minutes, they become sort of performative events rather than opportunities to learn. So this was a learning opportunity, and their performance will be ahead of us. And there’s a role for that, of course, too, because the public needs to have some insight into our broader debates.

Mr. Allen: Senator Bennet, artificial intelligence, obviously, one of the most important topics in global technology competition. Is there something you’d like to add here?

Sen. Bennet: Well, what I would add to it is that I think that the process that Chuck Schumer and Todd and the others have set up, really helpful and brought our focus onto artificial intelligence.

My view of the situation, partly coming as a school superintendent, again, and seeing the profound mental health effects that have resulted from, in part, our complete lack of regulation of social media companies, has raised in my mind the question of what is our role in Washington to put the American people in a negotiation with some of the biggest tech companies in this world. And I don’t want to just have – I don’t want our focus on AI to mean that we’re going to not pay attention to those questions that we haven’t addressed, you know. And this is not – this may be a place where we disagree, but I’m just going to say it: I believe these guys are strip-mining our privacy. I believe they’re strip-mining our data. They’ve created huge mental health challenges for our kids. And now AI’s going to be on top of all of that, and I think it’s very important for us to find a way to put the American people in a negotiation with these folks.

So I hope one of the things that comes out of these debates is a recognition that Congress may not be the right place to be able to do this; that we may need a new agency like, you know, in prior – earlier times, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, realized changing technology was going to change the way that the administrative state was going to have to respond. And in this case, we’re going to need dedicated people that actually understand this space – AI and all of it – and the national security implications as well, because, of course, we’ve seen over and over again our adversaries using these pipes to divide Americans from one another in ways that advantage them and not ourselves. I just think we have a real opportunity to explore what that would actually look like, and I proposed – I proposed that we actually create a new agency to do that as well. But that’s probably for a different day at CSIS.

Mr. Allen: Sir?

Sen. Young: I just would quickly add to that. I think it’ll be interesting and very important how we structure our effort – that is, whether we create a new agency or just to – or reenergize an existing entity within the White House, or what approach we take.

From my own perspective, how I’m looking at this is artificial intelligence has actually been around a long time. We’ve just seen rapid advancements recently because of the programming of algorithms and some breakthroughs there, as well as breakthroughs in terms of our chips technology. But with that said, I think we should do here what we’ve done for, frankly, generations, which is take existing laws and prohibitions and concerns, which presumably reflect our values, and adapt them to changes in society and technology. And some of that will just involve taking, say, civil rights laws or consumer protection laws and coming up with new regulations.

In certain areas – and this won’t be most of the cases – the challenge will instead be novel, entirely of a different order than we’ve seen in the past. And there will be some neglected areas of policymaking that we need to revisit. I actually agree with that. And if we think about it that way, this whole exercise becomes a little less daunting, except for the human resource challenge of bringing into government the expertise in artificial intelligence so that many of the civil servants can make those adaptations to current and ever-changing reality.

Mr. Allen: Well, Senator Bennet, Senator Young, we appreciate your leadership on this incredible topic – this incredibly important topic, and we look forward to the next steps for the Global Technology Leadership Act. Thank you so much for coming to CSIS today.

Sen. Bennet: Thanks for having us.

Sen. Young: Thank you for having us.

Mr. Allen: Thank you.

Sen. Young: Thanks.