Category Archives: future

What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

If you’re interested, Here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

In closing, please enjoy the holiday and its determination to focus our attention on peace and goodwill to all.

Thanks to Facebook and the Russians, we can have a public conversation about technology and national security. Cartoon by Sara Lautman, courtesy of The New Yorker

The Outing of Climate Change: How About a Policy?

This week saw the follow-on meeting to the Paris Climate Accord. The news is not good; or, as the Washington Post put it, “We are in trouble.” But at least the facts are clear. Yesterday,  the Global Carbon Project reported that carbon emission levels are not only growing (this year, 1.6 percent), they’re expected to jump another 2.7 percent, to 37.1 billion tons in 2019. The usual suspects: China in first place, the United States, Russia, and the EU. India was called out for rapidly-growing coal use. This news came on the heels of a Congressionally-mandated report the White House slipped out late on Black Friday warning of both severe environmental and economic damage if we continue on our present course.

Washington Post_emissions

Carbon emissions, the chief culprit in climate change, have hit a record high, and are climbing. It’s fair to say as this chart climbs, the quality of our (increasingly close) future goes down.

It’s time to build a shared vision of our future 

Which brings me to a conversation  among three brilliant scientists. The session, held during the Texas Tribune’s TribFest last Fall, explored our resistance to managing global warming and was sponsored by BP, an early champion of carbon reduction. The panel included:

  • Jason Bordoff, formerly the senior director for energy and  climate change at the NSA (yes, climate change impacts national security in a big way), now at Columbia
  • Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech.
  • Michael Webber, the Webber Energy Group, soon to be scientific and technical director at the French energy powerhouse ENGIE, on leave from the University of Texas at Austin

A policy that embraces both energy and climate

The consensus among the three: We need a policy that embraces both climate and energy, a shared vision of the future in terms of food, jobs, opportunities. Not an easy conversation, but as Hayhoe pointed out, it can start with a simple question: What do you care about? What do we share  — our children’s quality of life, being able to walk outside and breath, having water to drink, hunting and fishing, whatever it is that matters to each of us.

“The only reason we care about climate is because it affects things we already care about. It’s not an environmental issue; it’s a human issue. This is why I care about a changing climate, because it exacerbates our greatest humanitarian challenges: poverty, hunger, inequality, and more.”  @KHayhoe

“This doesn’t matter” isn’t getting us anywhere

Hard? Scary? Not applicable? It doesn’t matter, as Hayhoe pointed out,  the “this doesn’t matter to me” approach isn’t getting us anywhere in the face of mounting evidence .

Texas is Number One among the most vulnerable 

Regardless of whom you ask, Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country. Webber noted that Texans love being number one, and the state also stars as number one in terms of climate vulnerability. Thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rollback of restrictive guidelines, drilling is booming along the Gulf Coast, home to both the nation’s most productive oil fields and one of  most environmentally vulnerable regions in the country. Houston, at the epicenter of drilling activity is still recovering from the most expensive ($125 billion and counting) hurricanes in history.

Debris_pickup_TT_Harvey

Hurricane Harvey cost us $125 billion and counting — but it also convinced the city to develop a climate action plan. Photo courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

The state, which Webber described as the home of epic droughts punctuated by Biblical floods, is bound to become even more vulnerable as the rate of climate change rockets along at 50 percent faster than the rate of historical measurements. The jury is out on whether any action will come out of the upcoming legislative session, though Beto O’Rourke’s willingness to spar with (and almost beat) Texas’ junior senator was a hopeful note. Another bright spot: Houston has a climate action plan. But as above at the international level, so below here in Texas:  Are we too late?

Leadership matters

Final note: I attended the session thanks to an invitation from Paula Barnett-Bulcao, BP’s senior director of government relations and public affairs. I’ve admired BP for years for their vision and willingness to wear a white hat in an industry known for climate degradation. Barnett, who’s been with BP for 16 years, told me that when she was starting out in the industry, BP was the company she knew she wanted to work for.  Unfortunately, as is the way with white hats, BP fell off their horse in a big way with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  So it was very, very good to see the company out in front again. Leadership matters – everywhere and on all levels.

 

China and Innovation: While We’re Tweeting, the Future Happens

David Firestein, the executive director of the University of Texas’ new China Public Policy Center headlined a recent session of our speaker series, The World Spins, with some advice about competing with China.

“In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.  China is not our enemy. But it is our most formidable national competitor.”

Firestein, an Austin native who spent 20 years in China with the State Department and another 10 as a senior vice president at the East-West Institute, has no illusions about what’s at stake.

“It’s like a cage match in wrestling,” he explained, where one wrestler, the United States,

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs

David FIrestein, executive director of the China Public Policy Center: “In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.”

follows the rules, and the other, China, uses any- and everything to win. And winning means becoming the first country in history to be a brutally market-oriented authoritarian dictatorship.

In a cage match, tweets and tariffs are a poor match against a singularly focused industrial policy and a bill of rights that says:  Citizen, you stay out of politics, and we, the government, will make you rich.

One battleground:  artificial intelligence and big data

If you’re not reading Jeff Ding’s ChinaAI Newsletter, you should be. Ding, who is a graduate student at Cambridge, shares translations of Chinese policy, strategy and technology. His most recent is a report from boutique private investment firm Rising Investments on China’s Civil-Military Fusion.  The report notes that although applications based on artificial intelligence (big data, internet) need time to developed.

  • AI military applications still need a lot of time: products for the military industry require “high reliability,” so emerging technology like AI will be used as reserves and not be applied until they are mature, and the related technologies for AI (big data, internet) also have a number of security issues.
  • Intelligent weaponry and intelligent robots will have a major impact on the strategy and the tactics of future wars.

China also plans to use the same public-private partnerships that built the American technology sector to achieve its goals.

  • China did not permit non-government capital to enter into national defense industries until 2005. They are still looking for the emergence of a 50-100bn military industry private corporation on the scale of say Lockheed Martin.
  • The goal is to have over 80% of defense industry information construction technology come from private enterprise. China hopes to reach the first wave of peak civil-military fusion in 3-5 years.

Will political turmoil stifle American innovation?

Without the Dept. of Defense we wouldn’t have the Internet or email, much less venture capital and private equity.  Read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s excellent article about the push back against defense contracts among the employees of Silicon Valley technology giants. Sorkin quotes Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and a member of the Defense Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory committee set up under President Barack Obama, said he believed that the partisanship that was contributing to the debate would ultimately stifle innovation.

“I worry that it will stall progress,” said Grant. “Innovation has been fueled for decades by private-public partnerships. It smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Meanwhile, Firestein reminded us, China is in that cage match, its eye on the long-term, even as American strategy changes with an election cycle, from tweet to tweet. It’s hard to win a cage match when it’s unclear what winning looks like.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a major transformation and a technology revolution that is, by an order of magnitude, more disruptive than the internet revolution 20 years ago,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council recently told American Public Media’s Marketplace Report.

“If we don’t get wise to these trends that are reshaping our economy and are going to affect the way we work, live and everything else, the future is going to take us by surprise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

https_blogs-images.forbes.comjamiemoyfiles201802block-chain-2852998_1920-1200x534 (1)

The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the: