“If we want to win this race, we simply need to step up our efforts to create the next generation of tech innovators and entrepreneurs, just as we did as a country in the early days of the space race.”


At this year’s Cipher Brief Threat Conference, keynote guest Jennifer Ewbank, Deputy Director of the CIA for Digital Innovation, spoke. For clarity, her comments below have been gently edited.

ADVANCED PERSPECTIVE — Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, motivated individuals can transform the world, as Margaret Mead once said. It is the only object that has ever done so, in fact. It’s a fantastic place to share ideas and learn new information because leaders from business, the media, and government have congregated here to discuss the challenges confronting our country.

To give you some background, I took a path that was a little out of the ordinary to get this position. I worked for the government for many years, managing multidisciplinary teams that carried out intelligence missions abroad. And during those years, I’ve seen the intelligence environment undergo a complete transformation, largely as a result of the increasing adoption of cutting-edge digital technologies by our adversaries.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, motivated individuals can transform the world, as Margaret Mead once said. It is the only object that has ever done so, in fact. It’s a fantastic place to share ideas and learn new information because leaders from business, the media, and government have congregated here to discuss the challenges confronting our country.

To give you some background, I took a path that was a little out of the ordinary to get this position. I worked for the government for many years, managing multidisciplinary teams that carried out intelligence missions abroad. And during those years, I’ve seen the intelligence environment undergo a complete transformation, largely as a result of the increasing adoption of cutting-edge digital technologies by our adversaries.

The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, a tiny satellite the size of a basketball and weighing about 200 pounds, captured America’s interest and inspired a new alliance between government and business to win the space race. However, it wasn’t actually about space, at least not just space. Undoubtedly, we wanted to advance technology before the Soviets, but the true goal was to exercise global leadership. Leadership in the political, industrial, military, diplomatic, cultural, and yes, even in the field of technology. Freedom or authoritarianism, democracy or communism are two opposing future ideas.

Here we are, six and a half decades later, competing for technical supremacy once more, primarily in the digital sphere. Global supremacy is what we’re really talking about when we discuss AI and ML, blockchain, next-generation wireless communications, augmented and virtual reality, and perhaps even quantum computing in the distant future. Once more, there are two opposing views. One in which technology benefits society and one in which it governs it: digital democracy or digital dictatorship.

Alarmingly, freedom is eroding on a global scale. According to Freedom House, if democratic forces do not unite to ensure that everyone has access to freedom, the authoritarian paradigm may eventually take hold of the world order. Additionally, the timeline for this pattern is unsettling but intriguing. roughly 16 years old. If you reflect, you’ll notice that this approximately corresponds to the emergence of personal smart devices and the ease with which authoritarian governments can observe their own populations.


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A burgeoning group of digital autocracies are intimidating their own people while enforcing repressive political and cultural orthodoxies. It’s a surefire way to crush opposition and keep a firm hold on authority. And these days, digital technologies are increasingly being used to create, strengthen, and wield that power. Just question the countless millions of people who now reside in surveillance states, the likes of which we previously only read about in dystopian literature.

We face an increasing number of threats in this perilous digital environment as the use of surveillance and sensing technologies increases, cyberthreats become more dangerous and pervasive, and freedom itself is threatened globally.

The People’s Republic of China continues to be the source of the most dangerous of these dangers. The PRC continues to have the security and wealth of America in its sights. And in recent years, the Chinese have positioned themselves to undercut both by oversaturating the digital environment.

A massive investment in a potent digital arsenal has been used to finance their aspiration to become a global powerhouse. The PRC is using this arsenal, which includes cyber, AI, and quantum computing in the distant future, to increase its political influence, strengthen its military might, intimidate rivals in the area, and run its own surveillance state. They aren’t stopping there either.

Beijing is also vying for economic supremacy by investing more money in R&D and cutting-edge technologies to boost its position in the global economy and tip the balance of competition in its advantage.

Yes, we are America. We enjoy competing. We believe that competition is healthy, and it is, but the PRC is depending on more than just their technologies. The blatant theft of American intellectual property, which involves stealing the country’s greatest technological accomplishments with impunity, remains a cornerstone of Beijing’s development strategy.

PRC aggression is persistent and pervasive across the digital world. It’s a massive effort to undermine our security and competitiveness, as well as the American economy’s power and political sway around the world. Make no mistake: this is America’s digital Sputnik moment, at least in my view.

Investments in education, technological innovation, and strategic alliances will release America’s unmatched potential, much like the space race did many years ago. We have the chance to show global leadership and the resilience of American democracy in the same way that our past success in the space race did.

We will demonstrate that inventiveness and creativity can not only compete but also triumph when they are supported in a free and open society that upholds the rule of law and civil freedoms. Strategic alliances, education, and technical innovation. Since we don’t have many options, we must act quickly.

I’d like to briefly veer off the main topic of this conversation to share the experience of Ryan Daza, a 45-year-old resident of Washington, DC, in order to humanize some of the difficulties we encounter in raising the next generation of technical talent.

Ryan recently left his work as an economist to start the Capital City Robotics Club, a non-profit group for young people interested in engineering and technology in the nation’s capital. Ryan began looking for additional room after converting his basement into a robotics workshop in order to grow the club. In a city where chances like this are rare, especially for the less affluent, he attracted a variety of interest from kids throughout the neighborhoods. He therefore combed the area, discovered fantastic sponsors, the club thrived, and now it has about 200 members varying in age from five to fifteen. They reflect the economic and cultural diversity of the place in which they reside. They also fulfilled their goal of competing in the World Robotics Championship earlier this year.

A total of 20,000 teams from 50 different nations fought to win. In were 2,300 teams. Ryan had eight teams that advanced to the finals. Among their catchy titles were Robokitties and Unhidden Figures. Five of the teams were all-girl ensembles. Even though no team in its individual category was victorious, I think all of these kids are winners because they are so amazing.

Our nation has invested a significant amount of resources in the development of top-notch technical skills across government, industry, and education. We once served as the world’s institution, educating STEM experts from all over the world. Today, however, China’s postgraduate STEM pipeline is expanding quickly in both quantity and quality. China will generate nearly twice as many STEM PhD graduates as the US over the next three years. Additionally, if foreign students are not included in the U.S. total, they will generate three times more than Americans do.

We will now return to the Capital City Robotics Club. The young people in this heartwarming tale are the systems engineers, data scientists, and cloud architects of the future, and they are guided by a great guy. And in ten or twenty years, they will be on the front lines, creating and securing technology for the benefit of society, whether they are working for a startup, the national security sector, or designing manned space missions to Mars.

However, I have to question whether it will be sufficient. How can we successfully compete by fostering STEM talent in the upcoming generations? We must now adapt to the new digital environment, and, to be honest, our competitors are all-in. All of their coins are being pushed toward the middle of the table.

If we want to win this race, we simply need to step up our efforts to create the next generation of tech innovators and entrepreneurs, just as we did as a country in the early days of the space race.

As more and more of our society relies on digital technologies, intelligence gathering through technical and currently digital methods has grown in importance to our success in recent decades. I’ll state this a little too blatantly, but the CIA has developed into a world-class integrator. To learn more about our enemies’ strategies and motivations, we combine technology, digital skills, and our traditional strengths in human espionage. That is the main focus. to comprehend the strategies and objectives of our enemies.

We have been forced to innovate and adapt due to the increasing complexity of this task and the transformation I’ve just quickly described. It’s either innovate or perish in our society.

Here it is: our world. Every intelligence agency in the twenty-first century, including the CIA, now depends heavily on data. And right now, a roiling information storm is bearing down on our workforce, which will take true innovation to contain.

There is a lot of hype surrounding the term “innovation,” which is why I emphasize “real.” true invention. Everything we do is supported by how we gather information and how we process, analyze, and safeguard it. It’s a requirement for our success, which is just one of the many reasons why we place such a high priority on training our current and prospective employees in digital savvy. We can unleash the power of data for purpose and create the newest cutting-edge digital solutions by improving the technical proficiency of our workforce.

These novel solutions will increasingly incorporate human-machine collaboration. About 60 years ago, when a new employee at General Motors reported to an assembly line in New Jersey, we gave our first indication of this possibility. Moving die-castings from an assembly line and welding them onto car frames was thought to be extremely dangerous work, and there was a possibility of breathing toxic fumes or even losing a limb. It was perilous. This new hire, however, was undaunted and went about his job with a robotic efficiency. And yes, it should come as no news to anyone in this room that it was a machine. And Unimate, as it was known, became the first industrial automaton in 1961.

Unimate was praised all over the nation and even made an appearance on The Tonight Show where, I believe, it made a 20-foot putt while being broadcast live. However, what was novel in the middle of the 20th century—human work supported by machines—has evolved into a requirement in the 21st.

Our national security task now heavily relies on machines, from unmanned aerial vehicles with advanced strike capabilities to AI and ML applications to sift through enormous data troves. We are aware that the strength of AI lies in its capacity for transformation—the capacity to turn data into knowledge and knowledge into insight. And because these technologies are designed to learn and advance, their potential is practically endless.

In fact, one of the many lessons I’ve learned from working with private business is that managing the exponential growth of data in the future will depend heavily on AI and ML technologies. The foundation of our future intelligence enterprise will unavoidably be their capacity to automate labor-intensive tasks by sorting through the apparently limitless amounts of data that exist in the world.

It is impossible to overstate how important AI systems are already. The use of data science as a weapon by our enemies is currently compromising our operations, undermining American competitiveness, and even aiming at our democracy institutions.

I am aware of what many of you are contemplating. AI is still a very new field of study. Yes, there is a lot of hype, but everyone is vying to leverage AI’s power, from the cyberspace to the commercial world to traditional and digital battlefields.

Government investment in AI is currently far behind private sector investment, and this will probably never change. That’s alright. Resource scarcity is only one aspect of this conflict. It has to do with concepts, creativity, the future, and entrepreneurship.

Additionally, it concerns the youth members of the Capital City Robotics Club and the team members of the Directorate of Digital Innovation that I have the distinction of overseeing. I’m extremely happy with our staff. They give their all to the CIA’s goal with passion, vigor, creativity, and selfless patriotism.

In addition, AI is one mission and one challenge that the CIA, or really any other entity represented here today, cannot complete on its own, much like the public-private partnerships that have been at the core of our space program.

Government and business have developed in tandem but separately for many years. The protection of our strategic interests overseas and the mitigation of foreign military and intelligence threats have long been priorities for the national security and intelligence communities. And we’ve performed admirably overall.

Throughout the decades, government has been a driving force, leading all-out initiatives to break the atom, win the space race, treat global illnesses, and defend our democracy from the twin scourges of communism and terrorism. The American business and technology sectors have long been dominant on the global stage, serving as the heart of an economic superpower that produces ground-breaking advancements in every conceivable industry. Their tenacity and sense of competition are what have fueled our economic growth.

Today, a variety of threats, from long-standing foes to a plethora of rogues and non-state actors, endanger not only our national security but also the expansion of our economy. And a clear fact has come to light in the twenty-first century. National security includes economic stability. It has always been about national security, as we all know. They are intricately linked; diminish or destabilize one and the other will unquestionably suffer. The People’s Republic of China, Russia—which I’m happy we’re discussing at our conference this week—and a number of other countries are attempting to reduce America’s strategic and economic advantage. All that we value is on the line as they attempt to do this.

Our route actually becomes quite clear if we take a step back and think about how to navigate through the variety of dangers that are spread out before us. We can learn from the past, when our forebears banded together to address some of the most difficult problems our country was confronting. And I’m confident we’ll do it again.

In reality, the Fourth of July in 1956 was one of the high points. A new airplane took off from an airfield in West Germany and flew deep into Stalin’s Soviet Union in one of the most famous episodes in CIA history. It was the first flight of the U-2 Dragon Lady, a feat of American ingenuity and technical prowess. Additionally, it was the outcome of a previously unheard-of, highly secret partnership between Lockheed and the CIA.

We required a high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that could fly high above Soviet and east block defenses and gather evidence of Soviet military movements and manufacturing because the Soviets had erected an iron curtain around Eastern Europe.

Under the alias Skunkworks, the CIA-Lockheed partnership developed what became the U-2, an advanced photographic reconnaissance plane that could cruise more than 13 miles above the earth. The U-2 program was a boon to an Eisenhower administration that had virtually no window into Moscow’s build-up of strategic bombers and other nuclear forces. The collected imagery painted a stark and telling picture, and it was used to calibrate America’s strategic forces to counter those of our most capable rival at the time.

The CIA and Lockheed collaboration created the U-2, an advanced photographic reconnaissance aircraft that could fly more than 13 miles above the globe, under the codename Skunkworks. The Eisenhower administration benefited from the U-2 program because it provided a window into Moscow’s development of strategic bombers and other nuclear weapons. It was used to calibrate American strategic forces to counter those of our most capable adversary at the time. The gathered imagery created a stark and telling picture.

We will look for the capabilities that are the cornerstone of the future intelligence business as the CIA navigates this information storm I mentioned earlier. And sure, they include advanced computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Our efforts to completely harness the power of data for mission will be accelerated.

We will keep working to advance AI for operational advantages, to support our analytic evaluations, and, yes, to help manage a sizable company or organization. And because nothing less than the future of America is at risk, we will keep a laser-like focus on tomorrow. But we’re not on our own. Additionally, intelligence is a team activity, as we like to say. Simply put, a new framework for strategic partnership between the government and business needs to be developed. Economic security is national security, a notion based on that straightforward and basic tenet.

We need to discover a new direction after what has, to be honest, been a protracted cycle of transactional relationships. one built upon mutual respect, openness, and a shared dedication to the advancement of our democracy. Since it is absolutely essential that we compete as a team in this game. The ability of those in this room, our fellow patriot Americans, and our like-minded friends around the world to work together, to cooperate, as true partners, is what will determine America’s prosperity, security, and future.

either liberty or tyranny. Autocracy or liberty. Digital authoritarianism or digital freedom.

We have the option, the contest has begun, and there is no time to waste.

Indeed, this is the Sputnik moment for the digital age.


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