U.S. must protect these 5 technologies to remain a superpower: Intel officials

CNBC's Eamon Javers reports on the five technologies intelligence officials warn the U.S. must protect to remain a superpower. For access to live and exclusive video from CNBC subscribe to CNBC PRO: https://cnb.cx/2NGeIvi

U.S. intelligence officials have issued a stark warning: America’s status as a global superpower depends on maintaining a lead in five key technologies – and America’s rivals are trying to steal every one of them.

Officials said they are concerned that foreign theft of American technologies could not only rob the United States of economic leadership in the key sectors, but could threaten the country’s ability to even remain active in the industries at all.

The five technologies identified by intelligence officials are:

Artificial intelligence
Quantum computing
Autonomous systems

Officials cited legal and illegal activities, particularly those conducted by China, that have crippled competitiveness in sectors such as steel and solar panels. They also pointed to China’s wipeout of the Australian rail industry as an example.

“We don’t want what happened in those other industries to happen here,” said Michael Orlando, acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which falls under the Director of National Intelligence. When asked what the impact would be if the U.S. loses supremacy, he said: “It could be severe. We’ve got to focus on these industries because we can’t afford to lose them.”

In a new report, the NCSC wrote that “these sectors produce technologies that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors in the next few years.”

In each area, officials said, adversary nations have used a blend of legal and illegal methods – ranging from hiring talent to mergers and acquisitions to hacking and old-fashioned spycraft – to steal and replicate American technology.

Over the past several months, officials have briefed a small group of executives and academics on the dangers to their research. Now that the report is public, officials plan on a more aggressive outreach to industry and universities.

Officials said many private sector business leaders fail to appreciate that the outreach they get from Chinese and Russian entities for everything from joint ventures and partnerships to mergers and acquisitions is part of a national strategy by those governments to acquire those technologies and replace the American firms that are producing them.

Intelligence agencies fear that U.S. firms will not only lose their edge, but will be entirely pushed out of the technology sectors crucial to the 21st century.

“Its not just the loss of intellectual property, but the loss of a complete business model” said Edward You, NCSC’s national counterintelligence officer for Emerging and Disruptive Technologies. He said vulnerability is particularly acute in health technology. “Because of our short sightedness, we may wake up one day and discover that we have become health care crack addicts and China has become our pusher.”

Their goal is to explain to companies and universities that they are on the receiving end of a sophisticated, and often devious, effort by foreign governments to make off with valuable technology — and that some transactions that appear to be simple business deals are more dangerous to the country.

“People are having trouble understanding the bigger picture here and the ways that legal and illegal come together,” Orlando said. Any particular deal could be attractive on the individual merits, but American business leaders should recognize that these offers aren’t coming on the merits.

“It wasn’t just because it was a good investment,” he said. “It was because it was part of this larger plan.”

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