The West is facing a “moment of reckoning” where it comes to its control over the technologies that shape daily life, the head of GCHQ has said in an unusually direct speech.
Giving the Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture at Imperial College London, Jeremy Fleming said the West must act to ensure China does not dominate key technologies and gain control of the “global operating system”.
Such technologies include artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics, said Fleming.
He also raised concerns around 5G, saying the West had left itself with few choices other than Chinese firms such as Huawei for the next-generation technology.
“Significant technology leadership is moving East,” Fleming said.
“The concern is that China’s size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system.”
Ensuring competition means that global powers must develop the best technology, hire the best people and dominate global standards, Fleming said.
In particular, he said the UK must invest in skills in order to ensure it retains a major place in developing key technologies, he said.
He said Britain must develop “sovereign” quantum technologies, as well as cryptographic algorithms that are proof against powerful future quantum computers.
This would allow the UK to be “prepared for those adversaries who might use a quantum computer to look back at things that we currently think are secure”, he said.
Market conditions must be fostered that enable innovation while ensuring a diversity of supply, said Fleming.
China, meanwhile, is “bringing all the elements of state power to control, influence, design and dominate markets” and is trying to dominate debate about global standards, he said.
Fleming also praised the potential of digital currencies to revolutionise finance, while warning they could be used by illiberal states to carry out “significant intrusions” into the lives of citizens and companies.
He said that while Russia is the West’s biggest immediate threat, Communist China’s potential to control technologies is a long-term challenge.
“Russia is affecting the weather, whilst China is shaping the climate,” Fleming said.
The Integrated Review recently positioned science and technology at the core of future security and defence policy.
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