Has the U.S. Lost Its Technological Edge?

CIA’s Dawn Meyerriecks sounds alarm bells on the slowing pace of American innovation


When it comes to next-generation technologies, the United States is playing checkers, but its adversaries are playing chess.

So claimed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Deputy Director of Science and Technology Dawn Meyerriecks during a keynote address Sunday at GEOINT Foreword—GEOINT 2018’s pre-conference science and technology day.

According to Meyerriecks, the notion of American elitism has created a national environment in which innovation is deeply valued yet fundamentally taken for granted.

“This idea that innovation and R&D is ours by birthright—which we have lived on for years and years and years—is perhaps not an assumption that we should continue with,” said Meyerriecks, who opened her presentation by showing the audience two data curves representing U.S. and Chinese spending on research and development. At the current rate of investment, she pointed out, the two curves will intersect as early as the middle of this year, indicating China is on course to soon overtake the U.S. “… The current trend clearly illustrates that those curves are converging, and they will cross unless we do something different.”

Meyerriecks views the innovation race not only as an economic imperative, but also as a national-security concern.

“Economic viability is inextricably intertwined with national security,” she continued. “The Chinese … have been very overt about [wanting] to own next-generation wireless, next-generation compute, big data, and artificial intelligence, and they are moving systematically out against that.”

The bad news: While China is gaining ground in new technology, the U.S. is losing it. The good news: Like geological erosion, intellectual erosion at its core is an engineering problem—and when the right resources are applied, all engineering problems can eventually be solved.

“We’re all engineers and scientists, and we love solving challenges,” said Meyerriecks, who began her career as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is a challenge.”

It’s actually a series of challenges, according to Meyerriecks, who named several specific technology domains in which American superiority is in question, including 5G wireless, space, synthetic biology, identity intelligence, next-generation computing, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, just to name a few.

To illustrate what’s at stake for the Intelligence Community (IC) in general, particularly the CIA, Meyerriecks offered as an example an ongoing CIA concern: foreign surveillance of American spies. In approximately 30 countries, she said, CIA case officers are no longer followed when they leave their place of employment because closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have become so numerous and wireless coverage so vast that physical tails are no longer necessary. In response, the CIA applied machine learning to unclassified overhead and street-view imagery to help it identify the location, classification, and orientation of CCTV cameras.

“Between AI and [gamifying the location identification] of cameras, we actually put together a map of cameras in one of the big capitals that we don’t have easy access to … so that our folks might have some shot—also using AI—to plan a surveillance-detection route,” Meyerriecks explained. “So does this stuff matter? Absolutely. And we had to do this the hard way because [there are no commercial solutions] out there right now.”

Calling American Innovators

This brought Meyerriecks to the crux of her address: To maintain an edge, she proposed, the IC must change not only how it operates—future spies, for example, will have to “live their cover” to evade surveillance, she said—but also with whom it operates.

“This is an ecosystem,” Meyerriecks said of the IC. “I think we need to invite more people [into the ecosystem] … to leverage [commercial technology] on behalf of the nation.”

First, that means broadening the government’s definition of “industry” to include not only go-to government contractors, but also nontraditional partners in industries such as health care, engineering, and even hospitality.

“How many conversations are we having with GE Ventures? Or Intel [Capital]?” Meyerriecks asked. “How about Parsons? How about Marriott? What could those folks teach us? How could we leverage them in a non-spooky way to do the things that we need to do?”

Although you won’t have to sell the value of commercial partnerships to Meyerriecks, she acknowledged the challenge of selling it to industry. She therefore spent the balance of her presentation explaining why the IC makes an ideal customer for American innovators, who often don’t immediately see the IC as a potential user of their products.

“Because we think about the future so much, even within the confines of our current acquisition strategy, we are really good partners to inform where industry is going to go and where new industries can emerge,” asserted Meyerriecks, who reminded the audience that the CIA played a central role in the 2004 sale of 3D mapping startup Keyhole Inc. to Google, which subsequently used the company’s technology to create Google Maps and, henceforth, to commoditize mapping. “The intellectual capabilities that we bring to these conversations … create markets. That’s the story of Keyhole to Google Maps. Don’t underestimate that.”

Those who do will continue to play checkers. But if industry and government can pool their collective strengths, Meyerriecks suggested, America can finally join the chess match—and win.

Headline Image: Dawn Meyerriecks, CIA Deputy Director of Science and Technology, delivers a keynote address at GEOINT Foreword.


DNI Haines: GEOINT ‘Fundamental’ to U.S. National Security

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines discusses the improvement and expansion of GEOINT—and where we go from here


DoD CIO Outlines Plans to Safeguard Data Amidst Conflict

CIO John Sherman points to zero trust, new cloud partnership as keys to operational success


A Reflection on 40 Years of Service

Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, reflects on what has changed and what remains consistent in the threat landscape