Friday, May 24, 2024

Steve Blank Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition – 2023 Wrap Up

We just wrapped up the third year of our Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition class –part of Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

Joe Felter, Mike Brown and I teach the class to:

  • Give our students an appreciation of the challenges and opportunities for the United States in its enduring strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China, Russia and other rivals.
  • Offer insights on how commercial technology (AI, autonomy, cyber, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others) are radically changing how we will compete across all the elements of national power e.g. diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence and law enforcement (our influence and footprint on the world stage).
  • Expose students to experiential learning on policy questions. Students formed teams, got out of the classroom and talked to the stakeholders and developed policy recommendations.

Why This Class?
The recognition that the United States is engaged in long-term strategic competition with the Peoples Republic of China and Russia became a centerpiece of the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. The 2021 interim National Security Guidance and the administration’s recently released 2022 National Security Strategy make clear that China has rapidly become more assertive and is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. And as we’ve seen in Ukraine, Russia remains determined to wage a brutal war to play a disruptive role on the world stage.

Prevailing in this competition will require more than merely acquiring the fruits of this technological revolution; it will require a paradigm shift in the thinking of how this technology can be rapidly integrated into new capabilities and platforms to drive new operational and organizational concepts and strategies that change and optimize the way we compete.

Class Organization
The readings, lectures, and guest speakers explored how emerging commercial technologies pose challenges and create opportunities for the United States in its strategic competition with great power rivals with an emphasis on the People’s Republic of China. We focused on the challenges created when U.S. government agencies, our federal research labs, and government contractors no longer have exclusive access to these advanced technologies.

This course included all that you would expect from a Stanford graduate-level class in the Masters in International Policy – comprehensive readings, guest lectures from current and former senior officials/experts, and written papers. What makes the class unique however, is that this is an experiential policy class. Students formed small teams and embarked on a quarter-long project that got them out of the classroom to:

  • identify a priority national security challenge, and then …
  • validate the problem and propose a detailed solution tested against actual stakeholders in the technology and national security ecosystem.

The class was split into three parts.

Part 1, weeks 1 through 4 covered the international relations theories that attempt to explain the dynamics of interstate competition between powerful states, U.S. national security and national defense strategies and policies guiding our approach to Great Power Competition specifically focused on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In between parts 1 and 2 of the class, the students had a midterm individual project. It required them to write a 2,000-word policy memo describing how a U.S. competitor is using a specific technology to counter U.S. interests and a proposal for how the U.S. should respond.

Part 2, weeks 5 through 8, dove into the commercial technologies: semiconductors, space, cyber, AI and Machine Learning, High Performance Computing, and Biotech. Each week the students had to read 5-10 articles (see class readings here.) And each week we had guest speakers on great power competition, and technology and its impact on national power and lectures/class discussion.

Guest Speakers
In addition to the teaching team, the course drew on the experience and expertise of guest lecturers from industry and from across U.S. Government agencies to provide context and perspective on commercial technologies and national security.

The students were privileged to hear from extraordinary  guest speakers with significant experience and credibility on a range of topics related to the course objectives. Highlights of this year’s speakers include:

On National Security and American exceptionalism: General Jim Mattis, US Marine Corps (Ret.), former Secretary of Defense.

On China’s activities and efforts to compete with the U.S.: Matt Pottinger – former Deputy National Security Advisor, Elizabeth Economy – leading China scholar and former Dept of Commerce Senior Advisor for China, Tai Ming Cheung, – Author of Innovate to Dominate: The Rise of the Chinese Techno-Security State.

On U.S. – China Policy: Congressman Mike Gallagher, Chair House Select Committe on China.

On Innovation and National Security: Chris Brose – Author of The Kill Chain, Doug Beck – Director of the Defense Innovation Unit, Anja Manuel – Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy and Security Forum.

For Biotech: Ben Kirukup – senior biologist US Navy, Ed You – FBI Special Agent Biological Countermeasures Unit, Deborah Rosenblum – Asst Sec of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, Joe DeSimone – Professor Chemical Engineering.

For AI: Jared Dunnmon – Technical Director for AI at the Defense Innovation Unit, Lt. Gen. (Ret) Jack Shanahan – Director, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Anshu Roy-  CEO Rhombus AI

For Cyber: Anne Neuberger – deputy national security advisor for cyber

For Semiconductors: Larry Diamond – Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution

Significantly, the students were able to hear the Chinese perspective on U.S. – China competition from Dr. Jia Qingguo – Member of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of China.

The class closed with a stirring talk and call to action by former National Security Advisor LTG ret H.R. McMaster.

In the weeks in-between we had teaching team lectures followed by speakers that led discussions on the critical commercial technologies.

Team-based Experiential Project
The third part of the class was unique – a quarter-long, team-based project. Students formed teams of 4-6 and selected a national security challenge facing an organization or agency within the U.S. Government. They developed hypotheses of how commercial technologies can be used in new and creative ways to help the U.S. wield its instruments of national power. And consistent with all our Gordian Knot Center classes, they got out of the classroom. and interviewed 20+ beneficiaries, policy makers, and other key stakeholders testing their hypotheses and proposed solutions.

Hacking For Policy – Final Presentations:
At the end of the quarter, each student teams’ policy recommendations were summarized in a 10-minute presentation. The presentation was the story of the team’s learning journey, describing where they started, where they ended, and the key inflection points in their understanding of the problem. (A written 3000 word report followed focusing on their recommendations for addressing their chosen security challenge and describing how their solutions can be implemented with speed and urgency.)

By the end of the class all the teams realized that the policy problem they had selected had morphed into something bigger, deeper, and much more interesting.

Their policy presentations are below.

The class is as exhausting to teach as it to take. We have an awesome set of teaching assistants.

Team 1: Precision Match (AI for DoD Operations)

Click here to see the presentation.

What makes teaching worthwhile is the feedback we get from our students:

TIGPC has been the best class I’ve taken at Stanford and has caused me to do some reflection in what I want to do after my time at Stanford. I’m only a sophomore but doing such a deep dive into energy and (as Steve says) getting out of the building, I’m starting to seriously consider a career in clean energy security post graduation.

Team 2: Outbound Investment to China

Click here to see the presentation.

Team 3: Open-Source AI

Click here to see a summary of the presentation.

Team 4: AlphaChem

Click here to see the presentation.

One of my takeaways from the class is that you can be the smartest person in the room, but you will never have as much knowledge as everyone else combined so go talk to people, it will make you far smarter

Team 5: South China Sea

Click here to see the presentation.

Awesome class! … incredible in bringing prestigious guest speakers into the class and having engaging discussions. My background was not in national security and this class really offered an important perspective on the opportunities for technology innovation to impact and help with national security.

Team 6: Chinese Real Estate Investment in the U.S.

Click here to see the presentation.

Team 7: Public Private Partnerships

Click here to see the presentation.

Just wanted to let you know that, as a Senior, this is one of the best classes I’ve taken across my 4 years at Stanford.

Team 8: Ukraine Aid

Click here to see the presentation.

Lessons Learned

  • We combined lecture and experiential learning so our students can act on problems not just admire them
    • The external input the students received was a force multiplier
    • It made the lecture material real, tangible and actionable
    • Lean problem solving methods can be effectively employed to address pressing national security and policy challenges
    • This course was akin to a “Hacking for Policy class” and can be tweaked and replicated going forward.
  • The class created opportunities for our best and brightest to engage and address challenges at the nexus of technology, innovation and national security
    • When students are provided such opportunities they aggressively seize them with impressive results
    • The final presentations and papers from the class are proof that will happen
  • Pushing students past what they think is reasonable results in extraordinary output. Most rise way above the occasion

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