A trip to the White House
Two days before the Lunar New Year 2024, I went to the White House to meet with representatives of the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss cybersecurity and AI for Vietnam.
My old friend Thomas Vallely organized the meeting and invited me to participate. I accepted because I was also curious to know how the US government works. Besides, this is a good opportunity for Calif. Not every company has the opportunity to come to the White House to talk about their work.
Calif was founded because we want to help developing countries defend critical infrastructure. I think security in general and cybersecurity in particular are always a core issue in the US-Vietnam relationship. As an American company with close ties to Vietnam, we want to participate in the discussion of cybersecurity policy between the two countries.
I live in California but I was in Vietnam for Tet. So I had to fly from Saigon to DC, had a quick meeting, and then flew back to catch Tet. This is not the first time I have flown around the world, but it is probably the longest trip for the shortest meeting. In total, I flew for 44 hours, including waiting time.
I took advantage of the flight time to prepare a report, share the current (bad) state of the cybersecurity in Vietnam, and offer a few solutions. My plan was to present the ideas and call on the US government to invest.
However, when we entered the meeting, the NSC had already prepared a list of questions. They already had a number of initiatives in Vietnam. They wanted us to consult them on how to implement these programs.
In the delegation, besides Tommy and me, there were also Mr. Le Viet Quoc, Mr. Ben Wilkinson and a lobbyist. Since I was the only one on this side of the table who knew a bit about cybersecurity, I was tasked with answering NSC’s questions. I think I did okay. The other side listened attentively and took notes.
We discussed for about 15 minutes on a variety of issues, from anti-money laundering on blockchain, ransomware, to establishing a 5G research lab, training human resources, and sharing cybersecurity information. They asked what should be pursued, what should be abandoned, and how to speed things up.
I said the future of 5G in Vietnam remains unclear, because 5G requires large investments but doesn’t have any killer apps yet. The current 4G infrastructure in Vietnam is still working well.
Regarding training, I said that cyber crime agencies in Vietnam urgently need help in improving digital forensics skills. However, I also mentioned that cybersecurity is a dual-use technology, teaching defense is also teaching offense.
The NSC also brought up an issue about submarine cables connecting Vietnam to the global Internet. I said this is an issue of strong public interest. I find the issue NSC raised important and needs to be investigated further. I will come back to it in another article.
The remaining initiatives are all useful for Vietnam. Some projects also coincide with the ideas I wanted to share in the first place. I wanted to discuss more, but we had one more important topic, AI, so Tommy turned the conversation to AI and invited Mr. Quoc to share his opinion.
Mr. Quoc introduced himself and said that Vietnam needs to do AI. They asked how? Mr. Quoc said that investing in education will bring long-term benefits.
Mr. Quoc said that there are three leading AI groups in Vietnam: VinAI, FPT AI and New Turing Institute (NTI - the predecessor of VietAI). The first two groups are from enterprises, the third group is a grass-root movement.
The head of NTI is Mr. Luong Minh Thang, who has just published a very interesting research feature in the New York Times. Because NTI focuses on AI education, if the US government wants to support Vietnam to develop AI, NTI would be a good investment.
The two sides talked about AI for about 10 minutes, then the NSC wanted to go back to cybersecurity. After the meeting, Mr. Quoc said they were not interested in AI.
I don't remember how the story was led, I just remember the part where Tommy passed them my report. They took a quick look and asked what the core idea was.
I said that Vietnam cannot yet defend itself in cyber because it lacks human resources that can build defensive security, although in terms of offensive, Vietnam is not bad. To engineer defensive security, it is necessary to invest in education in computer science foundations. This is also the intersection of AI and cybersecurity.
I said that NTI and my company have one thing in common, that we both started out as 20% projects at Google. Google's initial funding allowed us to provide high-quality services for free or at low cost, building trust with those in need of support.
The US government can play a role like Google, providing initial financial support for projects to protect critical infrastructure in Vietnam, connecting those who can do it with those who need it.
I could tell they weren't very interested. After a few more rounds of small talks, diplomatic exchanges, and planning for next steps, the meeting came to an end.
I realized that NSC wasn’t looking for new ideas, but instead focused on developing their existing programs. Before the meeting, the lobbyist had mentioned that the US government wants to solve global problems. They aren’t very interested in individual programs for each country. Their programs are designed to solve problems not only for Vietnam, but for the whole world.
This was my biggest take away from the trip. If you want the US government to support Vietnam, you first need to cleverly fit Vietnam's programs into their global programs.
The meeting also helped me understand how difficult it is to make policy changes. I have always admired Tommy's efforts in advocating for Vietnam, and now I admire him even more. It takes a ton of team effort to set up a meeting like this, but the results are often uncertain.
Tommy was still optimistic, saying that the meeting was very good because it achieved the goal of having the NSC connect his team with other agencies in the US government. I told him that if he found it useful, I was glad I made the trip.
I am sitting in Doha as I write these lines. The plane will depart for Saigon at midnight on Lunar New Year's Eve, and land on the morning of the first day of Tet. By coincidence, today is also the 13th anniversary of my departure from Vietnam to the US.
Looking back on the long journey from Saigon to the short meeting at the White House today, I suddenly remember the song that Ned liked so much in the soundtrack of the Journey to the West movie: "Where is the road? It is under your feet."
The ten thousand mile journey I have traveled, the doors I have opened, often started with very small things, which at the time seemed to be useless. The longer I could go, the more I could open. I believe the connections we made today will sow the seeds for brilliant developments in the future. We will return to the White House.
Let me end with a wise comment on YouTube: How our life will be, the next path we will take is all up to our feet, our choice. Let's head towards good things, pray for peace for all things. And hope for a small thing: after the hardships will always be happiness.
Happy Lunar New Year!