Recently Techonomy hosted a dinner in New York, and our guests wanted relentlessly to talk about data. Where will society produce it? How much can we manage? Who will control it? What will they do to us with it? How can individuals retain influence over it? These are elemental questions for our era. They are questions that not only citizens, but government itself needs to be methodically asking. The dinner had nothing to do with our impending Techonomy Policy conference next Tuesday, June 9, in Washington. But it’s no coincidence that the opening session is entitled “Keeping America Innovative In the Age of Data Exhaust.”
The speakers for that session include Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, veteran tech leader Steve Case, and R. David Edelman, who is special assistant to President Obama for economic and technology policy on the National Economic Council. We sustain that quality level all day. We’ll hear from entrepreneur and investor Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and Plaxo, founding president of Facebook, and now, co-creator of the Economic Innovation Group, an ambitious bi-partisan project to stimulate tech-savvy growth for the American economy. Parker will appear in our closing session with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Bipartisanship around tech and economic policy is what we desperately need.
Techonomy Policy aims to help seed critical dialogue about the challenges for government as tech’s progress accelerates. We’ve learned from our past events that there is an urgent need for innovators and policy makers to come together, to keep our economy moving forward and our country competitive. We aim to bring government leaders together with the innovators, entrepreneurs, and aggressive businesses driving such changes, in a constructive dialogue that doesn’t gloss over the challenges.
One guest at the New York dinner explained that he is a close student of his own personal health, and gets regular blood tests. Each time, he logs the results in a spreadsheet to track his health metrics. And where does he keep that spreadsheet? In Google Docs, of course. So, he asked, what if, in some not-distant future, he’s driving along in a car controlled by Google’s self-driving software, and a head-on collision is imminent? Could Google’s algorithms instantly conclude he has little likelihood of long life, based on the spreadsheet, and sacrifice him in favor of the healthier occupant of the other vehicle?
Hyperbole aside, what standards must data-owners abide by in a data-rich world? Who gets to use data? What will be our protections against data’s misuse, and who will define misuse? Can government actively and continuously engage with such questions? Maybe we can begin to figure out government’s role in situations like the Google Docs/driverless car example.
The data explosion is just one of a dauntingly numerous variety of tech transformations now underway that will overturn norms in commerce, behavior, health, public safety, and work. What about the Internet of Things, as intelligence, control, and yes, data accumulation increasingly surrounds us, literally? Or the Blockchain, that inscrutable new way to securely organize any sort of information with no central authority or oversight? It increasingly seems like the most important innovation surrounding the digital currency Bitcoin. We’ll have multiple sessions devoted to both of these urgent topics at Techonomy Policy.
Every day’s headlines underscore the need for unvarnished conversation between the changemakers and those who make policy and regulation. A guy who published online his plans for a 3D-printed gun is suing the State Department, which earlier ordered him to withdraw the documents because it said that publishing them was the export of military secrets. Now the guy’s high-powered lawyers argue that he was just publishing computer code, and government is violating his freedom of speech.
On another front, the Federal Aviation Administration is finally, slowly, loosening up its super-tight regulation of drones. Selected companies can now test them beyond the line of sight of the operator. Meanwhile, other countries are galloping forward with this not-dominated-by-Americans technology. The world’s leading dronemaker, DJI, is Chinese. And in France, over 1,250 licensed companies fly drones in a wide range of commercial applications, including scanning farmers’ fields and analyzing from the air the soil chemistry to recommend precise fertilizer and irrigation recipes. The U.S. is falling behind.
The new European Commission has a vice president whose entire charge is to work towards a continent-wide “digital single market.” At Techonomy Policy we will host both the European Union ambassador to the United States and his counselor on the digital economy. (Yes, he has one.) They’ll talk both about how the U.S. and Europe can work together and learn from one another.
This stuff is happening, fast. How can government, designed in some ways deliberately to move slowly, accommodate the enormous changes underway? At Techonomy Policy we’ve got legislators, commissioners from the FTC and FCC, experts from academia, industry leaders from tech, investors, authors, rabble-rousers, and representatives from the core of the DC establishment. Only by bringing together such a diverse group, we think, can we push this dialogue forward with energy and sophistication.
We’re all citizens, and it matters for our collective future.