The American Adam and Inherent Strengths

In academia, industry, and national security, there is an ever-growing focus on technology and the advantages organizations may gain over one another if only they can accelerate and leverage the latest technological capability.  At all levels of education, there is increased use of more complex facilities.  High schools may now house robotics labs and departments.  Social media, video conferencing, and Power Point are basic and expected tools, and 3D simulations are becoming more pervasive at all levels.  Industry leaders pursue advantages afforded by virtual reality, robotics, data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and more.  National security increasingly depends in part on advancements with AI for a variety of applications, biotechnology for human enhancement, directed energy for improved weapons systems, and quantum science for leaps ahead with cryptography and computational processing.  In almost all sectors, there has been an increased focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics, and while these topics remain critical, our most significant capabilities as Americans may be inherent and unique and may lie in softer skills.  Our history, culture, and value system may provide our greatest advantages.

Technology Dependence

Especially in the realm of national security, technology has long provided a competitive advantage for the United States where the size of the military force is not as dominant.  The development of nuclear weapons – regardless of their morality – shifted the direction of warfare.  Stealth technology and precision munitions had a similar, albeit less significant effect.  The Department of Defense has been pursing the Third offset, which is the latest effort to capture a unique technological advantage.  Specifically, this third offset focuses on autonomous deep learning machines and systems for intelligence, human-machine collaboration for improved decision-making, assisted-human operations, advanced manned and unmanned combat teaming, and networked-enabled semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons.  These themes tend towards human-machine integration and coordination.  In comparison to previous so-called offsets, this current effort has a greater sense of urgency as a result of multiple rogue and near peer competitors and as a result of democratization of technology.

In general, technology advancements are transitioning to industry and are thus becoming transnational to an extent that was previously unseen.  Now, commercial spending on research and development in the United States is approximately $350 Billion, whereas government spending is on the order of $150 Billion.  The United States is not only in a race to develop and leverage novel capabilities but also to address the challenge of working with industry without giving up critical intellectual property.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to be the “first to market” with new capabilities and then also retain that advantage for decades.  For example, stealth technology was arguably developed and used in the 1960s or even earlier, and this has provided an advantage for the United States for almost fifty years.  We will likely never enjoy a comparable period of military-technology advantage.  Thus, we must focus more intensely on continued innovation, or we must look for additional strengths.  Perhaps the focus on technology, on the need for the most powerful and new shiny object, has clouded our view of inherent strengths.  In the words of Walt Whitman, “It is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them, and perhaps it is the case that the greatest artists live and die, the world and themselves alike ignorant what they possess.”

Cultural Benefits

The United States has long enjoyed plentiful natural resources and a strategically advantageous geographic structure: a large land mass surrounded by large bodies of water and allies.  However, it has also enjoyed the less recognized advantages of its culture.  The United States is unique in its combination of history and values.  Although it may be changing with time, America can trace at least part of its identify back to a Puritan work ethic, a dedication to hard work and quality.  With its roots in exploration and settlement of new lands, Americans still generally value adaptability and a positive outlook.  In addition, independence and creative problem-solving have always been defining characteristics of the quintessential American.  As Herman Melville said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  In juxtaposition to many other cultures, especially those in the East, being different is accepted and often admired.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests, “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

All of these aspects of American culture, especially when combined and coordinated, can provide competitive advantages in the civilian and military sectors.  Cultivating adaptability, independence, and creative problem-solving provide not only tactical benefits but higher-level strategic benefits as well.  And, given their derivation from history and culture, they are nearly impossible to duplicate or steel.  These characteristics can be just as potent, profitable, and advantageous as the latest technology, but only if they are cultivated.

There is a risk that the conceptual American Adam, described by R. W. B. Lewis, which focuses on the future promise of innovation, becomes complacent, perhaps forgetful of its character.  Practically, such decline could manifest itself in changes in American values, a plight self-inflicted on many past empires.  However, we can guard against this in the context of academia, industry, and national security.  While the focus on STEM education on all levels is critical and should in no way diminish, it must be complimented with equal attention to American Studies, the arts, and creativity.  These latter topics are not simply a matter of personal fulfillment; they contribute to national and international competitiveness.  In fact, as an example, even as the use of robotics becomes more pervasive, industry is increasing calling for education and workforce development that focuses on so-called soft skills.  There can be significant gains from primary and post-primary education, workforce development, military training, and even policy-making that taps into classically American strengths.

The urgency surrounding the third offset is certainly warranted, but the associated focus on human-machine teaming should balance between both the machine and the human.  The process of fostering both innovation with technology and innovation with the more humanistic arts is dynamic; we must tend to it constantly over time.

via Tim Marler

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