Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

A new study from Washington-based think-tank the Atlantic Council, released this week, decried what it found was widespread complacency in the US regarding technological innovation. China, the study found, still lagged behind the US in a variety of areas, but thanks to government support for the tech industry and long-term strategic planning, it was catching up fast.

While the authors first and foremost highlighted a need for the renewed sense of urgency comparable to that seen after the Soviet Union’s launch of its Sputnik satellite, it quickly veered into the world of social justice, an area not generally associated with America’s technological successes of the 20th century.

The study’s recommendations focused on inclusivity, arguing that governments need to acknowledge that “even high-functioning tech ecosystems are exclusionary.”

“To correct this form of inequality and improve national economic performance, governments should encourage participation in tech innovation by women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, and lower-income groups,” the study said, without directly indicated how the idealistic goals would help countries compete in technological innovation.

The authors also spent a good deal of time advising on how to prepare for the disruptive impact that technological impact represents. Their answer: universal basic income or guaranteed employment.

“One trendy idea is a guaranteed annual income. The concept is that because the new economy provides inconsistent employment opportunities – unlike the high industrial economy, which at its peak offered well-paying, lifetime employment – people need to be given an income floor.

“Yet another approach is a job guarantee, wherein the government is an employer of last resort. A tried-and-true prescription during tough times.”

Meanwhile, instead of focusing on ideological ends, China is fostering an environment more conducive to innovation, according to some technology entrepreneurs.

Sam Altman, a tech entrepreneur and investor who is the president of Y Combinator and co-chairman of OpenAI, wrote last year about his surprise to find that China was more open than Silicon Valley.

“Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me. I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.  I didn’t feel completely comfortable – this was China, after all – just more comfortable than at home.…

“Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation – the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones. Usually, mainstream ideas are right and heterodox ideas are wrong, but the true and unpopular ideas are what drive the world forward. Also, smart people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere.”

Altman received a tongue-lashing from some readers of his blog when he suggested that any criticism of social-justice orthodoxies should also be tolerated, regardless of whether it was correct or not. One might wonder whether questioning the Atlantic Council’s focus on diversity and social safety nets is allowed in Silicon Valley.

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