America's tech moment of truth

Foreign nations are recruiting the country's best companies and universities to go overseas. Can they be won back?

I'd like to deliver my first State of the Union speech. I don't hold public office, but as a citizen, I figure that I have this prerogative. My message: We're doomed, people.

I was actually hoping for something more upbeat in my inaugural address, but why beat around the bush? In the past few years, other nations have caught up with, and in many ways surpassed, the United States in reaching important milestones, and the future is probably going to get worse.

Part of the reason I cover international technological trends is to suck up to my future masters. Here are just some of the ominous signs:

• Asia became the center for industrial manufacturing several years ago and is now making inroads into high-technology, cutting-edge manufacturing for things like chips, according to George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, which keeps tabs and sends out alarms on America's decline. (I came up with this gloomy prognosis after speaking with Scalise. Because of the nature of his job, he can have that effect on people.)

A decade or so ago, roughly 35 percent of the investments in leading-edge chip technologies were made in the United States. In the last five years, only about 10 percent to 12 percent of those investments landed stateside.

Because I'm a San Francisco journalist, some of you will conclude that I'm inherently biased against America. You couldn't be more wrong.

"We're falling behind rather rapidly," Scalise said.

Many of these overseas investments are made by U.S. corporations. Initially, many of the engineers running an overseas operation are U.S. transplants, but soon, by osmosis, these plants become the creations of their native lands.

It's not just China, either: Thailand is the No. 1 producer of hard drives, according to Joel Weiss, president of the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association.

• U.S. universities are going international. Cornell has a medical school in Qatar, and Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M have four-year engineering programs there. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is currently helping Abu Dhabi build a graduate school dedicated to alternative energy. In Singapore, the government has enticed several big-name professors to come to its Biopolis biotech hub and has enlisted Duke University to build a United States-style medical school.

For the universities, this is a way to get students who otherwise couldn't get to the States because of financial issues or visa problems. It's also a way to take advantage of well-known brand names in nations filled with ambitious and wealthy people. But for U.S. citizens, it's not the best news: now you don't have to live here to attend our best schools.

• Pop culture has gone global. Except for a few weird exceptions, like ABBA and that Turkish guy who played ping-pong, cheesy pop culture has been a monopoly of the English-speaking peoples. Not anymore.

Anime dominates cartoons. In China, more than 200 companies have taken the YouTube model and outdone it. Google is losing to Baidu there. That golden opportunity to expand into emerging markets has already vanished.

Because I'm a San Francisco journalist, some of you will conclude that I'm inherently biased against America. You couldn't be more wrong. When I come through customs, I want to hug the security guards. In Dubai, citizens have to deal with an omnipresent secret-police force. (A plainclothes agent even followed me one morning.) In India, there's relentless bureaucracy. China has aggravating censorship. And in Germany, they are still trying to wrap their minds around the convenience store concept.

I grew up in Reno, Nevada, land of the free and home of the 99 cent breakfast. There's a lot that the world can learn from us. Is there any way out? Here are some ideas:

1. Embrace failure. In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists and others often say, "Failure is a badge of honor." Failure, it's said, teaches an entrepreneur how to avoid mistakes on the next start-up. In reality, it means, "We went to Stanford B-school together, and he needs a job."

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