This post originally appeared on MIT Technology Review
America’s most famous spy agency has a major competitor it can’t quite seem to beat: Silicon Valley.
The CIA has long been a place cutting edge technology is researched, developed, and realized—and wants to lead in fields like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. However, recruiting and retaining the talent capable of building these tools is a problem on many levels, including the fact that a spy agency can’t match Silicon Valley salaries, reputations, and patents.
The agency’s solution is CIA Labs, a new skunkworks that will attempt to recruit and retain technical talent by offering incentives to those who work there. Under the new initiative, announced today, CIA officers will be able to publicly file and profit from the intellectual property they work on for the first time. The agency will take the rest of the balance. Dawn Meyerriecks, who heads the agency’s science and technology directorate, says the best case scenario is that the agency’s research and development could end up paying for itself.
“This is helping maintain US dominance, particularly from a technological perspective,” says Meyerriecks. “That’s really critical for national and economic security. It also democratizes the technology by making it available to the planet in a way that allows the level of the water to rise for all.”
It’s not the first time the agency has worked to commercialize technology it helped develop. The agency already sponsors its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, which has backed companies including Keyhole, the core technology that would later make up Google Earth. Meyerriecks says the CIA maintains relationships with a variety of other venture capitalists with the same goal.
It also works closely with other arms of government like the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to do basic and expensive research where the private sector and academia often don’t deliver the goods. What CIA Labs aims to do differently is focus inward to attract — and then keep — more scientists and engineers, and become a research partner to academia and industry.
Officers who develop new technologies at CIA Labs will be allowed to patent, license, and profit from their work for the first time, making 15 percent of the total income from the new invention with a cap of $150,000 per year, a total that can double most agency salaries and make it more competitive with Silicon Valley.
CIA Labs is looking at areas including artificial intelligence, data analytics, biotechnology, advanced materials and high performance quantum computing.
One example of an immediate problem Meyerriecks says the agency faces is that it collects so much data that it risks being buried beneath it. She described how the agency’s many types of sensors — the kind of tech found on drones, for instance — suck up incalculable mountains of data per second. Officers badly want to develop massive computational power in a relatively small, low-power sensor so the sorting can be done quickly on the device instead of having to send everything back to a central system.
Of course, the process of developing new technology inevitably runs into questions about how it’s actually used, especially at an agency that has long been a fundamental instrument of American power. During the cold war, Meyerriecks says, the agency helped develop lithium-ion batteries, an innovative power source that changed the way it carried out operations before becoming a widely used public technology. More recently, during the war on terrorism, the agency poured resources into advancing nascent drone technology that made tech-enabled covert assassination a weapon of choice for every American president since 9/11 despite despite ongoing controversy over its potential illegality.