A Sputnik Moment?
Today's superpower scientific competition is like the Cold War - with one crucial difference.
Welcome to Space Race, where we explore the impact of breakthroughs in science research on the intensifying global contest of superpowers in the 21st century. Subscribe for weekly breakdowns of the scientific breakthroughs that will shape the future.
In this week’s newsletter we compare today’s US-China competition and this newsletter’s namesake the US-USSR Space Race to see just how accurate a blueprint the 20th century might be for the 21st.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, recently compared China’s unexpected test of hypersonic missiles to a “Sputnik moment”. So far, this is the most explicit comparison between the US-China technological competition of today and the Space Race between the US and USSR. This provocative comparison begs the question — is the intense technological competition of the Cold War era a blueprint for what we might see in the 21st century?
The term Sputnik moment refers to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched into space in October 1957. This epochal and completely unexpected success threw the US into crisis. American society panicked as it entertained the possibility of being technologically inferior to the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this mood of panic best captured than in national newspapers, with The New York Times mentioning Sputnik in more than 11 articles per day in the month following the launch. In response, the US created NASA to coordinate its own space efforts, and thus began the Space Race.
However, space was only one arena in a much broader theatre of technological and scientific competition. Another example was nuclear weapons, with the US and USSR conducting their first successful detonations in 1945 and 1949 respectively. This was soon upgraded to more destructive thermonuclear detonations for the US in 1952 and the USSR in 1953. Realising the vital importance of scientific research in winning the Cold War, the US created the National Science Foundation in 1950, with an initial allocation of $3.5 million. After Sputnik, this was raised to $40 million.
It is an open question whether we are in a Cold War 2 today, but what is not in doubt is that there is again a full techno-scientific competition underway. In many senses, the competition today is even sharper thanks to the incredible scientific progress simultaneously underway in multiple areas, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology.
However, one key difference is that while superpower rivalry encouraged technological progress in the Cold War, today the reverse is true — technological progress has given the superpowers a platform to compete upon and instead intensified their rivalry.
In the Cold War, the pursuit of ideological prestige in the battle of capitalism vs communism and threat of nuclear war were the key motivations to create entire programs of scientific research. This was what culminated in the launch of American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts into space.
On the other hand, today’s incredible technological progress is happening without nearly as much governmental direction. For instance, plenty of today’s innovation in fields such as quantum computing, biotechnology, and space travel stems from the private sector, which was not nearly as significant during the Cold War.
Of course, a very large amount of basic science is still funded by governments, but research priorities today are far less shaped by politicians/military planners than by panels of scientists in universities and labs. The net result is a vibrant ecosystem of private companies and public labs working in tandem to advance the frontiers of knowledge. Due to this, today’s superpowers don’t need to create massive research programs out of nothing. Instead, they can simply take advantage of the multiple scientific revolutions already underway to play out their rivarly.
One example of this is the US National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act. Passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives and unanimously by the Senate in 2018, this act provided upwards of 1 billion dollars specifically for quantum information science. It also called for the creation of multiple “National Quantum Information Science Research Centers” to “accelerate scientific breakthroughs in quantum information science and technology”. The federal government also established a “National Quantum Coordination Center” to oversee these efforts. Not surprisingly, this was one of the most substantial investments in basic science research ever made.
Despite its magnitude however, the NQI act is definitely not what started the present boom in quantum research. Quantum science had already been accelerating rapidly long before the NQI was even drafted. The latest date one could plausibly give is the late 2000s, when qubit development began maturing as a field — almost a decade before the NQI.
Unlike the NSF, the NQI is not meant to build a new basic science infrastructure from scratch to answer a pressing national need. Instead, its goal is to support and encourage a technological revolution already underway. The chief reason that the US and Chinese governments are interested in quantum technology is because of the competitive advantages it offers in their strategic rivarly. As I have detailed elsewhere, quantum sensors offer a decisive military advantage with potential nuclear ramifications. Furthermore, the prestige of building a functioning quantum computer, considered a holy grail of modern research, would be very substantial. Not to be left behind, China is also aggressively investing in quantum research and offering Chinese scientists incentives to lure them back from Western research labs. Both superpowers see a tantalising opportunity to assert their superiority through the quantum revolution already underway. Therefore, quantum science is most definitely not a product of US-China rivalry. Instead, quantum science has intensified the US-China rivalry by giving the superpowers a readymade arena in which to compete with each other.
Artificial Intelligence is another area of immense technological progress which the superpowers have seized as an arena of competition. Much like quantum, AI had been a field in blossom at least a decade before the intensification of US-China rivalry. For obvious reasons, a large proportion of the innovation in AI also stems from private companies such as Google & Facebook in the US and Baidu & Tencent in China. Add to this vibrant ecosystem the potential use cases of AI in national security applications such as automating drone warfare and it becomes clear why the American and Chinese states have locked themselves in a contest for AI supremacy. President Xi of China is said to have had a personal reaction when he heard that Google’s AlphaGo AI defeated the world champion of the game Go. In response, he set targets for China to pursue “dominance over AI technology and related applications by 2030.” As with quantum, AI offered a readymade sphere of competition which the superpowers would inevitably jump into.
AI and quantum are just two of the many booming spheres of science and tech which have been co-opted by the nascent superpower rivalry. There are plenty of other examples, such as semiconductors and biotechnology.
So are we facing a Sputnik moment? The answer depends on whether one thinks the US-China competition of today actually resembles the Cold War, which is a debate best left to political scientists. What is clear is that there is already an intense scientific competition underway between the US and China. This competition spans the full spectrum, including technologies that will play a huge role in the decades to come such as quantum, AI, semiconductors, and biotech .
However, there is a crucial difference between today’s US-China competition and the Space Race. In the 20th century, it was the imperatives of superpower rivalry that founded entire research programs and departments such as the NSF and NASA. In many ways, the US-USSR rivalry birthed the current age of big science. In the 21st however, rapid technological innovation — much of it from private actors — in critical technologies was already underway long before the US and China set their sights on each other. This innovation instead gave the Chinese and American states readymade arenas of competition to seize upon. Therefore, while the innovation of the 20th century was birthed in large part by superpower rivarly, the innovation of the 21st has unwittingly been co-opted into the US-China rivalry. Given that global collaboration is the lifeblood of science, one can only hope that Washington and Beijing’s choice to extend their military/economic competition into the scientific sphere will not cripple the amazing progress being made today.