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Ash Carter

A View from Ash Carter

What I Learned from the People who Built the Atom Bomb

Former secretary of defense Ash Carter reflects on how technologists can help government solve big problems.

  • November 27, 2017

When I began my career in elementary particle physics, the great figures who taught and inspired me had been part of the Manhattan Project generation that developed the atomic bomb. They were proud to have created a “disruptive” technology that ended World War II and deterred a third world war through more than 50 years of tense East-West standoff. They were also proud to have made nuclear power possible. But their understanding of the underlying technology also gave them a deep regard for the awesome, unavoidable risks that came with those technologies.

As a consequence, they dedicated themselves to inventing, in parallel, the technologies behind arms control (like reconnaissance satellites to verify agreements) and nuclear reactor safety (like containment vessels for radioactive leakages). By working on both the bright opportunities and the complex dilemmas of nuclear technology, these scientists tried to round out its effect on humanity. They recognized that the advance of knowledge is inevitable, but it needs to be steered in the direction of public good.

Technologists in my generation understood that we had an opportunity—and an obligation—to use our knowledge in the service of civic life and public purpose. It’s obvious that technologists today have the same obligation, and also that society is in need of practical, analytically driven solutions to the problems that arise in connection with fast-paced technological change. Such solutions will emerge only if the new generation of young tech innovators is encouraged and inspired to assume the civic responsibilities that come with creating changes of great consequence.

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There haven’t been many technologists who became secretary of defense. But for me, there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship between my training in physics and the responsibilities of that job. Earlier in my career I worked on defense issues—of great consequence at the time—that had a strong technical component. One was evaluating President Reagan’s idea of space-based defense against missiles, a.k.a. Star Wars, for the Pentagon (I concluded that it wouldn’t work). Another task I took on, first in academia and then in a second job in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, was controlling the nuclear weapons of the Soviet Union when that country disintegrated at the end of the Cold War (an effort that fortunately worked).

I had the satisfaction of knowing that better paths were taken because my technical knowledge contributed to decisions. Big issues and a chance to see your training make a difference are a powerful combination for a young scientist. I felt that strong attraction from the start, and in the years ahead I returned again and again to Pentagon service.

Much later, when I became secretary of defense under President Obama, a priority of mine was to make sure that the bridges between the Pentagon and the tech community were strong. I believed that I needed to be not only the secretary of defense for today—defeating ISIS and deterring war with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—but also the secretary of defense for tomorrow, making sure new technology was available for whatever unforeseen dangers might emerge.

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With that goal in mind, I helped create an expanding network of Pentagon outposts called Defense Innovation Units-Experimental (DIUx)—in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, Texas—where technologists and new companies can learn about defense issues. They are also places to learn about funding—the Pentagon spends $72 billion per year on research and development, more than twice the total for Google, Apple, and Microsoft combined. And it works both ways: at DIUx, the Pentagon’s sluggish bureaucracy can learn the ways of the startup culture.

While in Washington, I also created the Defense Digital Service to bring technologists into the Pentagon and give them a chance to do a “tour of duty” for a few months or a year to solve critical problems like planning air strikes precisely to avoid harming civilians, or protecting defense networks from hacking. People who joined often told me their work there was the most meaningful of their early careers and changed their outlook when they returned to the private sector.

I wanted even more ideas for linking the tech community to defense. So I set up a Defense Innovation Board that was chaired by Alphabet’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, and included leading tech thinkers like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman. I wanted to make sure that the best innovative thinking was available to defense.

Defense is far from the only area where the public interest sorely needs the input of technical people. The Internet and social media have radically transformed commerce and community, but they’ve also created new opportunities for hostility, lies, and isolation. Now digital companies like Facebook are being urged by a variety of sources—including government—to address those challenges. It’s in their best interest to do so, because if the technologists themselves don’t do it, the problems will instead be “solved” by lawyers, legislators, and regulators.

There’s also technology’s effect on jobs. Driverless cars will make roads safer and give hours of time back to commuters. They’ll also eliminate the jobs of millions of people who make their living driving trucks, cabs, and delivery vehicles. Perhaps technology can help by creating new types of jobs. Keeping the American dream real, so that people have a chance to improve their lives, is essential to a cohesive society—as today’s politics sometimes show.

Meanwhile, as some old jobs go away, many companies report having trouble finding qualified employees for new jobs. Here again, technology can help—by making technical training more widespread, making it available at various levels, and making it lifelong, via online delivery.

Remembering the lessons the atomic physics generation taught me when I was starting out gives me hope about the role technologists can play in handling the bright opportunities—and civic dilemmas—that innovation brings. So too does my experience as secretary of defense.

Young technologists I have met want to make a difference. They know that the progress of science cannot be stopped, but it can also be shaped for good. They know that if they don’t join the effort, choices will be made by politicians or judges who might not have much technical background or insight. Worse, the effects of change might fall victim to forces of backwardness and darkness. Many of these people don’t necessarily want jobs in government or philanthropy, at least not for an entire career. They want to join the most powerful engine of making a difference: private companies fueled by technology. But they also want to be sure they invent solutions to problems that technology creates, just like the atomic bomb scientists who invented arms control in a distant era.

Ash Carter was secretary of defense from 2015 to 2017. He is an Innovation Fellow at MIT and director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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