A technology renaissance is sweeping the Federal ecosystem, fueled by growing government support and public-private partnerships that are pushing the boundaries of innovation.
In all corners of the tech world, cutting-edge research is thriving, and emerging technologies are supporting mission-critical work. Cybersecurity pioneers are implementing zero trust principles to help keep the nation safe from cyber threats, while artificial intelligence (AI) is a growing presence in Federal agencies.
The gap between workforce skills and technological needs poses a growing challenge, but tech leaders are stepping in to provide a broad range of technical training and other programs to help the workforce develop critical skills.
That’s what’s happening now. What’s next?
Even as they innovate on a daily basis to implement the technologies of today, leaders throughout the IT ecosystem are focusing on developing the solutions of tomorrow. And with the recent passage of the historic Chips and Sciences Act and other steps to support emerging tech, the Federal government is playing a key role in leading America into the technological future.
By some estimates, U.S. government spending on emerging technologies nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021, rising from $60.7 billion to $117.2 billion. Earlier this year, the Biden administration released an FY 2023 budget with what it called “historic investments in science and technology.”
“No matter what technology comes down the pike, the key is enabling the workforce to be able to leverage it to solve mission objectives,” said Tony Holmes, practice lead for public sector solutions architects at Pluralsight, a technology workforce development company.
“Government dollars should go into ensuring that the U.S. government has the best people, by offering world class upskilling and reskilling to help fill the technological skills gap that is increasing every day,” Holmes said.
Mark Townsend, vice president of professional services at Invicti, a developer of web application security technologies, pointed to President Biden’s executive order on cybersecurity as an example of how a strong and aggressive Federal approach can spur innovation. The order “is the catalyst for agencies to increase the scrutiny of their cybersecurity measures with prescriptive technologies and controls, including zero trust initiatives,” he said.
Throughout the government, Federal “agencies at all levels are using emerging technologies” to “enhance their operations and improve customer service,” according to the Partnership for Public Service, which cited AI, edge computing, and virtual and augmented reality as among the areas of growing focus.
The spirit of innovation has extended far and wide, with new technological trends converging and pushing boundaries to the point where some label this technological era “the fourth industrial revolution.”
Here are some of the hottest new technologies that experts say are coming down the pike, along with an overview of the government support helping to pave the way for their development:
- Quantum computing: Quantum information science and technology ranks third on the initial list of key focus areas for a new National Science Foundation (NSF) technology innovation directorate established by the Chips and Sciences Act.
It’s little wonder why. Quantum computing has the potential to solve the world’s most complex problems, at speeds exponentially faster than current supercomputers, and the race is on to be the global innovation leader in this emerging field. Since 2019, the Federal budget for quantum information science research and development has roughly doubled, to about $900 million, according to the White House’s National Science & Technology Council.
- Nanotechnology: Last year, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced $30 million in funding for five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers to enable the development of nanotechnologies.
It was the latest step in the evolution of the rapidly growing field that constitutes “the study and application of extremely small things” – and has applications across other sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics. The NSF and other Federal agencies are investing tens of millions of dollars in nanotechnology. The field has “captured the imagination of a generation of materials scientists, chemists, physicists and biologists,’’ noted Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, in Scientific American.
- 6G: To hear technology experts tell it, 5G is just the beginning. 6G is the future. And the future is imminent.
Sixth-generation (6G) wireless technologies are not expected to be developed until around 2030, but some in government and industry have turned their attention to them, even as Federal agencies are adopting 5G networks. In March, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a bill that would create a council to oversee Federal investments and policy development of next-generation communications technology, including 6G.
For Federal agencies, the potential implications of 6G are profound in areas such as AI. “There is no question that 5G and 6G-fueled AI innovations are going to change how we live, work, and how governments deliver services,” said Dan Chaney, who leads AI and data science programs for IT solutions provider Future Tech Enterprise.
- Next-generation cybersecurity: With cyber threats constantly advancing, technology and policy are coming together in the generation of new tools to increase security resiliency. Innovation and automation, through solutions such as AI, machine learning (ML), and behavioral analysis, are key parts of next-generation cybersecurity designed to protect the nation’s most critical infrastructure and assets.
The effort got a governmental boost in August when the DOE announced $45 million in funding for so-called next next-gen cyber tools to shield the electric grid from cyberattacks. The money will support up to 15 research, development, and demonstration projects focused on developing technologies to enable energy systems to autonomously recognize cyberattacks and attempt to prevent them.
Growing Federal Support
To help bring these new technological visions fully into reality, the feds are stepping in.
The Chips and Science Act, signed by President Biden in August, includes $52 billion to incentivize semiconductor makers to build new plants in the United States. Though the chips side of the bill received most of the publicity, it also contained billions in crucial science funding that will strengthen America’s standing as a global leader in the technologies of tomorrow.
The new NSF technology directorate established by the bill, for example, will focus initially on areas ranging from AI and robotics, to biotechnology and data storage.
In recent months, a number of major chip makers have reacted to the legislation by expanding operations in the United States, including Micron, which announced in October that it would invest up to $100 billion over two decades to build a computer chip factory complex in New York.
But even before Congress passed the Chips and Sciences Act, leaders throughout the executive branch were “building strategies to harness emerging technologies for a variety of mission outcomes.” Those strategies include the extensive use of AI at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and immersive technologies to aid flood mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Across administrations of different political parties, the Federal government has tried to support new and emerging technologies:
- In October 2020, the Trump administration released a National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies (C&ET). In an effort to maintain “worldwide C&ET leadership” for the United States over strategic competitors such as China, the document laid out two pillars for success: Promote the National Security Innovation Base and Protect (the U.S.) Technology Advantage.
- The Biden White House in February released an updated list of what the government deems critical and emerging technologies that are “of particular importance to the national security of the United States.” Coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the list includes 19 areas ranging from advanced computing and AI to semiconductors, microelectronics, and renewable energy generation and storage.
The White House says the list will “inform a forthcoming strategy on U.S. technological competitiveness and national security.”
- At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress is gleaning information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which in 2019 formed a Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to focus on advances that are “changing the world we live in.”
The unit, which has more than doubled in staff, has provided lawmakers with reports on issues such as the risks to the semiconductor supply chain and the uses and limitations of blockchain technology.
Going forward, some experts say the continuing tech skills gap is the key issue whose resolution will help determine the future of the government IT and technology revolution.
Holmes, of Pluralsight, said government leaders should focus on repeated upskilling and reskilling of their workforce. “Agencies need to be able to benchmark their tech talent and provide a cost-effective, easily accessible method to upskill and reskill their workforce,” he said. “The skills gap and skills shortage is a multifaceted problem that needs to be broken into its component parts.”
Among the key questions that IT leaders should be asking, he added, are: “Do you have enough people? Do you make it easy or hard for people to be recruited? Do you make it easy for people to learn and grow?”
Townsend, of Invicti, sees the tech revolution evolving into a future marked by “a transition from tracking vulnerabilities to measuring risk. This transformation will be driven by AI and machine learning.”
Vendors, Townsend added, “will focus on AI and ML technologies to accelerate this transformation to enable agile evaluation of risk vs. playing whack-a-mole with vulnerabilities. It will take participation from research agencies, innovative companies, and public sector sponsorship to drive this toward meaningful results.”
As for Chaney of Future Tech, he sees a future in which AI-fueled improvements in areas such as cybersecurity and customer service create profound opportunities for the Federal government and beyond.
“AI can process massive amounts of data much faster than cybersecurity teams. AI/ML technology can analyze trends and spot unusual behavior, alerting security teams who can act on that information,” he said.
“As technology advances,” he added, “Federal organizations will be able to anticipate needs and provide information to citizens before they ask – creating new levels of responsiveness and efficiency. We are out of the gate, with enormous opportunity ahead.”