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Hey Silicon Valley: President Obama Has a To-Do List for You

Written by techgoth

Ask not what the government can do for Silicon Valley; ask what Silicon Valley can do for the government. That’s President Obama’s tack, anyway. He presented WIRED with six challenges he feels the tech industry needs to address—just a few earthshaking problems the country could use some help with, that’s all. We reached out to six of the biggest names in the WIRED world, and we gave each of them a challenge from the president’s list. Then we asked: To get this done, what’s the industry’s best play?

Tim O’Reilly

1. Tackle inequality.

Tim O’Reilly, investor and founder of O’Reilly Media

Silicon Valley runs on stories. So does the economy in general. We create what we believe in. If we believe we can use technology to identify and solve big problems, then that’s what we’ll do. Unfortunately, right now too many people think of technology as something that eliminates jobs through efficiency—capturing the money that used to go to workers.

The tech industry can actually be a force that decreases inequality, but not enough people in Silicon Valley see that. Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, once worried that by funding startup companies he was inevitably widening the gap between rich and poor—because he was helping a few founders get very wealthy. That’s wrong. If a company creates more value than it captures, it decreases inequality—no matter how rich the founders become.

The most exciting companies think of technology as a tool to create more opportunities for people, not reduce them. About the least interesting way to think about self-driving cars is merely as a means to cut payroll expenses. Instead we should be thinking up all the ways they will empower new economic activity: cheaper, smarter public transportation networks; better access to medical care. We should think the same way about all new technologies. Take Zipline, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, which is running a pilot program that uses drones to deliver medicines and blood for transfusions on demand. It’s starting in Rwanda, a country with sometimes impassable roads and poor health infrastructure. But there’s already demand for its product here in the US; after all, there are plenty of places in America too where delivering just-in-time medical supplies is all but impossible.

This is the right way to approach innovation: Start with a real problem—not an invented one—and then find ways for technology to help solve it. It’s the difference between Let’s be the Uber of dry cleaning (Washio, shut down after nearly $17 million in venture funding) and Let’s rethink the way we deliver elder care (Honor home care, $62 million in funding, growing fast, and showing that the on-demand economy can be a source of real, full-time jobs).

This all may sound obvious, but far too little of the tech industry operates this way today. We’ve gotten to a point where companies aren’t even trying to build a business that will produce profits; they are just trying to stay funded long enough for another company to acquire them. They are actively chasing the waste instead of the win. That misplaced focus isn’t just annoying, it contributes to global inequality, because it emphasizes capturing value instead of creating it. It reminds me of Wall Street in 2007.

And it echoes the story of the economy writ large. Over the past 30 years, wages have largely flatlined as corporate profits have surged, which means that companies in other sectors too are capturing more wealth than they are creating. This is a recipe for economic stagnation. Consumer demand is 70 percent of GDP. So when companies treat people solely as an expense to be automated away, or as mere supply of wealth to be extracted, they are slowly cutting their own throats.

In short, the best way for the tech industry to tackle inequality is for it to do what it’s supposed to do: innovate in ways that create actual gains in growth and productivity— that don’t just replace people but empower them to do what was previously impossible.

Chris Dixon

2. Strengthen Cybersecurity.

Chris Dixon, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz

I like to say we’re in the third era of computer security. In the first era, during the 1980s and early 1990s, the primary threats were viruses created by hackers who were mostly interested in mischief or vandalism. In the next era, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the main threats were economically motivated hackers who created things like botnets, spam, and dark markets for stolen credit card numbers. In both of these eras, the attackers would launch the same attacks against many targets. Security software would track the patterns of attack and stop bad code from getting inside a network. Despite the occasional breach, it did a reasonably good job.

Now, in the third era, governments and other well-funded organizations are sponsoring sophisticated, customized attacks on specific targets—Sony Pictures, the Democratic National Committee, the US Office of Personnel Management. Because the bad code is custom-written for each assault, the hackers don’t leave patterns of attack, which means the core design principles of prior-era security software no longer apply. This has shifted the balance of power to the attackers. Almost every day, there are media reports of significant new breaches. For every breach we hear about, there are many more that go unreported. It’s a scary situation. This is not only very bad for the hack victims, it’s also bad for the tech industry. People won’t buy products they don’t trust.

These threats are only going to become more severe. We’ll soon have computers embedded in our homes, offices, cars, and throughout our critical public infrastructure. As computing devices proliferate, so will the threats. Mercedes recently ran an ad saying that its new car has 100 million lines of code. That’s impressive—until you realize that on average, any piece of software has a few bugs per thousand lines of code, so the car probably has thousands of vulnerabilities. In a recent incident, hackers flew drones near office buildings; workers trying to print files were actually sending sensitive information to the drones, which mimicked local network identities.

How can we turn the tide? Entrepreneurs are working on new ways to use smartphones to authenticate users, better ways to track insider threats, and a new generation of security software that detects and responds to threats in real time. New computer architectures—like blockchain systems—include audit trails and are less corruptible by a single actor, making them inherently less vulnerable.

At the same time, the kinds of artificial intelligence that have proven so adept at image recognition and language processing in recent years are now starting to be enlisted for security. Today’s spam filters look for relatively simple patterns, like whether the same email was sent to millions of ­people. This isn’t effective when an attack email is targeted and personalized. A machine learning system, on the other hand, might be smart enough to know it’s suspicious that, say, your boss is emailing you asking for your password. The technology to do this accurately and comprehensively is probably only a few years away.

Another crucial answer to all these challenges is public policy. The relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley has become strained in recent years over the issues of encryption and privacy. Strong end-to-end encryption is an essential tool for securing our networks and devices, but it can make the job of law enforcement more difficult. To thrive in this third era, we need to find a constructive way to work together on issues like this—one that preserves both national security and personal security.

Mark Zuckerberg

3. Ensure that artificial intelligence helps rather than hurts us.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

People have always used technology as a lever to improve lives and increase productivity. But at the beginning of every cycle of invention, there’s a temptation to focus on the risks that come with a new technology instead of the benefits it will bring.

Today we’re seeing that happen with artificial intelligence.

AI sounds like magic, but most of the examples that you read about today really just consist of basic math and pattern matching. You feed the system a lot of data—like thousands of pictures of dogs—and then it can identify more dogs. It’s a powerful tool for doing things like translating languages or teaching cars to drive, but it’s nowhere near what humans can do.

Eventually, I hope AI will help computers have common sense—the capacity to observe the world and then generalize and learn from it. But we’re very far from developing that. And when we do, it will be because we reduced the problem to math, not magic.

When people come up with doomsday scenarios about AI, it’s important to remember that these are hypothetical. There’s ­little basis outside science fiction to believe they will come true. ­People are always worried about new technology, but the reality is that AI is already saving lives. The AI we’re developing now can diagnose diseases and match them up with new treatments. Self-driving cars will be much safer than those with human drivers.

Whoever cares about saving lives should be optimistic about the difference that AI can make. If we slow down progress in defer­ence to unfounded concerns, we stand in the way of real gains.

We’ve had this kind of debate before. The airplane has been a massively beneficial piece of technology. When it was being invented, people had a lot of concerns that it could be dangerous. And they were right! But we didn’t rush to put rules in place about how airplanes should work before we figured out how they’d fly in the first place. Instead, we waited until the science was actually understood and then worked together to shape its application.

As powerful as advanced AI might be someday, we need to understand it first and think carefully about how it should be applied. The best thing we can do is make sure we have the best minds working on AI and support research that helps us develop it faster. Again, it’s just math. Not magic.

At a very basic level, I think AI is good and not something we should be afraid of. We’re already seeing examples of how AI can unlock value and improve the world. If we can choose hope over fear—and if we advance the fundamental science behind AI—then this is only the beginning.

Yasmin Green

4. Keep terrorists from using technology to plot and do harm.

Yasmin Green, head of R&D at Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas)

If you want to dissuade someone from joining a group like ISIS, you have to reach them at just the right moment: before they’ve committed to its cause. I’ve spent the past year talking to people who did join the group, and many of them started out with questions about the so-called Islamic State—about the effectiveness of its government or the legitimacy of its religious claims. ISIS hopes to intercept those questions and provide its own answers to them via recruitment videos in Arabic, English, French, Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, and even sign language. It’s very inviting. When you talk to people who have joined ISIS, they say that this is how they got involved. It started on the open web.

One way to disrupt online radicalization is to redirect vulnerable audiences toward credible counter-­messages just as they start looking into those questions. And that’s where online advertising comes in. We can use it to reach people who are interested in ISIS’s message but not yet fully committed. For example, when someone searches for religious rulings on holy war—fatwas on jihad—online ads targeted against these terms can redirect them to video testimonials from defectors, who can talk about what ISIS is really like. When we’ve tried this in experiments, targeted audiences clicked on our anti-ISIS search ads 70 percent more than comparable ads that use similar keywords.

This is a more fruitful approach than trying to erase dialog from the Internet altogether. We can all agree that material that incites violence doesn’t belong online. But when ISIS raises questions about the world, you can’t just wipe that from the Internet. Ideas need to be raised and confronted and disputed. Right now, it can feel dangerous to challenge extremism online. ­People get shouted down, harassed, or worse. That gives power to the bad guys, because it shuts reasonable people out of the conversation, leaving just the violent voices.

We haven’t seen a terrorist organization as digitally savvy as ISIS before, but when you think about it, much of what it’s doing isn’t all that different from what any teenager can do; you wouldn’t be surprised if your 14-year-old daughter made a video and put it online. It’s only surprising because we have this idea of terrorists as old, bearded men hiding out in the mountains. Terrorist groups are evolving like the rest of us. We need to continue experimenting with solutions that meet these groups where they connect with the rest of the world.

Mary Barra

5. Develop tools that will take climate resilience and clean energy mainstream.

Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors

A few years before I became CEO, we started to think about really big trends, and we quickly came to the conclusion that climate resilience was an area where we could lead. And so the question became: As our customers learn about and understand the environmental impact of driving, how can we provide them with vehicles and transportation options that allow them to become part of the solution?

A company of our size has a huge responsibility to find solutions and make them available as quickly as possible. That’s why we’ve allied with Lyft on ride-sharing programs and why we purchased Cruise Automation, a self-driving-tech startup; we’ve partnered both companies with our in-house teams to drive development. It used to be difficult for outsiders to break into the automotive world, but now we’re actively looking for great ideas that we can bring to scale. We partner with startups, with suppliers, and with universities, especially on the electrification front—we’re constantly trying to figure out, for example, how we can make smaller battery packs with more power at an affordable price. And thanks in part to that work, we’re building the Chevy Bolt EV, which we expect to be the first electric car that truly fits the needs of the mass market.

Of course, cars alone won’t solve the problem. If you sell electric vehicles but don’t have clean electricity production, you just shift the problem somewhere else. And government has a huge role to play. If you want autonomous vehicles to reduce congestion and get ­people from point A to point B more efficiently, then you need the right legal and regulatory framework to ensure you’re developing them responsibly. If you want electric vehicles to succeed, you need an infrastructure of charging stations to support consumer adoption.

Every business makes decisions about how it uses energy. And people notice. They form beliefs about companies based on whether they are good citizens of the world, and those beliefs inform which products they purchase, which stocks they buy, and which companies they work for. I want the best and brightest talent to come work for GM. And that’s just one more reason why it is important for us to play a leadership role. Ultimately, everybody has a part in solving this problem, whether you’re a five-­person startup or a huge manufacturer with more than 200,000 employees. We’ve all heard the rhetoric about how big challenges amount to big opportunities. In this case, it’s absolutely true.

Satya Nadella

6. Make it easier for citizens to participate in their government.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Over the past few decades, businesses have grown accustomed to operating in a data-rich environment, with systems that help them make the most of that data. We know when our customers come to our websites, when they interact on our mobile apps, when they call our sales department. We have a 360-degree view of who our customers are, what they’ve done, and what they’re likely to need in the future.

People typically don’t expect governments to have those same capabilities. But I’ve spent quite a bit of time working with the public sector—not just in the US but worldwide—and I’ve begun to see a fundamental shift. Civil servants are starting to go after those same capabilities, tapping into the same kind of analytic and predictive powers that private-sector companies enjoy, so they can get better at their jobs.

We see local governments all over the world using data to tackle the challenges facing their communities. In Tacoma, Washington, the Department of Education can predict high school dropout rates and use that information to disburse its scarce resources to bring those numbers down. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a Microsoft cloud-­computing platform helped process live video from polling booths to help ensure free and fair state elections. And US cities including San Jose, Seattle, New Orleans, and New York are using public data sets to identify road safety risks and the best ways to ameliorate them.

This is a massive opportunity for developers. There’s this impression that the tech industry innovates quickly, while governments are bureaucratic and lethargic. That’s changing. They are beginning to run like any large company that needs to innovate. Of course, the public ­sector has different standards of security and privacy. But these agencies are creating room for experimentation and rapid evolution that, once it proves itself, can be brought into the core functions of government.

As developers wake up to these possibilities, and governments keep up this momentum, one day soon we’ll be able to interact with our local, state, and federal agencies as easily and transparently as we do with other consumer services. As a result, we’ll get rid of many of the transactional costs we all bear in getting things done—whether it’s waiting in line at the DMV, filing our taxes, or accessing benefits. It will all become more seamless. And as you grow trust and reduce transactional costs, that will result in real GDP growth. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake. America’s economy grows when we invest in infrastructure—and this is just infrastructure of a different and unprecedented kind.

This article appears in our special November issue, guest-edited by President Barack Obama. Subscribe now.

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