The United States became the undisputed global leader in innovation following World War II. From transistors to personal computers, from the development of the Internet to the evolution of the smart phone, America was at the frontier of the world’s technological transformation. Multiple factors drove this advancement in the post-war era: consumer demand, Cold War competition, the relentless pursuit of advancement, and strong federal leadership. High risk tolerance, competition, and the insatiable appetite to create and improve technology forged an innovation culture that has benefited the United States and the world.
That culture—and all the economic, security, and societal benefits that it brings—is now at risk. It is easy to lose sight of the conditions that propelled the United States into such a strong position of innovative leadership. Many Americans reflexively assume that this status was preordained—a sort of “innovation manifest destiny.” This ignores history. To be sure, the United States had many innate advantages, but American leadership in the post-war years grew out of a unique set of circumstances, many of which no longer exist and are unlikely to be seen again.
Yet even with all those advantages, in the midst of our 20th century innovation boom, we needed a wakeup call: the Sputnik moment. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite into orbit, and suddenly, the United States was publicly behind in the space race. Sputnik ignited a feverish pursuit for technological dominance, heralding decades of research and development, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and countless other advancements.
To maintain our global position, the United States—government, private sector, and academia— must chart a purposeful course to maintain our leadership while embracing the values that have long propelled American innovation. If not, we run the risk of squandering the many national advantages we still possess. We cannot wait for the next Sputnik moment—whether in quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), or some yet-to-be-discovered technology—to focus our national attention and efforts. Much is at stake. Continued innovation leadership is essential to peace and economic prosperity for the United States and the global community. If the United States cedes leadership in innovation, there is a risk that new technologies will be developed and implemented by nations that do not share values of liberty and freedom.