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

For more information, 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.

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. 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.

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.

Building a shared vision

Which brings me to a conversation among three brilliant scientists. Held during the Texas Tribune’s always-fascinating TribFest and 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

Embracing both energy and climate

The consensus: Effective climate change policy has to grounded in a shared vision in terms of food, jobs and opportunity. It must embrace both climate and energy. As Hayhoe pointed out, it starts with a simple question: What do you care about?

“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

Epic droughts punctuated by Biblical Floods

Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country and number one in terms of climate vulnerability. Thanks to the EPA’s rolling back restrictive guidelines, drilling is booming along the Gulf Coast, one of the nation’s most environmentally vulnerable regions. Houston, at the epicenter of drilling activity is still recovering from the most expensive ($125 billion and counting) hurricanes in history.

The world’s 505 remaining whooping cranes winter on the environmentally-sensitive and oil-rich Texas Gulf Coast

The most frightening trait of climate change is its pace: 50 percent faster than the rate of at which its been historically measured. 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.  High praise.

Policy Weirding: Climate Change and National Security

Will the military drive our national climate change agenda?  Dr. Joshua Busby dropped by a session of the World Spins for an update. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that new regulations on toxic chemicals and soot are to be based on data and science generally available to the public (otherwise known as “pop science”). In the past six months, the EPA deleted climate change from its strategic initiatives. President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, making it the only nation on earth unwilling to voluntarily reduce its carbon emissions, identified as the major contributor to global warming.

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A military weather-tracking station. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change report.

Whiplash contradiction over how to address changing weather patterns 

Over roughly the same time period, the National Defense Authorization Act identified climate change as a national security issue. The Center for Climate Change and Security published a chronology of over 12 separate concerns raised by senior Dept. of Defense officials, including:

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

An associate professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Policy and an internationally-recognized expert on climate change policy and national security, Busby remains unperturbed in the face of whiplash contradiction. A veteran of climate research and negotiation, he recommended substituting “climate weirding” for “climate change” to cultivate civil discussion — not so easy in a world where the weather is mentioned in the same breath as terrorism.

 “It’s (climate change) a super-wicked problem, characterized by greed, lots of actors and short-term actions.”

Dr. Joshua Busby

The military perspective: assess and plan for risk   

From a military perspective, the risks posed by climate change are unequivocal. They can be assigned a dollar figure. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest in U.S. history. Damages topped $200 billion, not including cost of calling out the National Guard for the three most expensive hurricanes in recent history — Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Tasked with managing installations from Newport News to Africa and Antarctica, it must contend with rising sea levels, temperature and humidity; agricultural production; and  massive migration.

“In the Arctic, the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise is eroding shorelines, which is damaging radar and communication installations, runways, seawalls, and training areas. In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

The National Defense Authorization Act

Busby and his team are helping the military pinpoint trouble spots before they occur. Using a composite mapping tool, they identify the countries most vulnerable to a combination of weather, famine, poverty and weak government — India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh. In this way, military can more effectively plan and direct help where it will be needed, as well as measure results over time.

Meanwhile in private sector, opportunity

While the military sees threats, the private sector sees opportunity. Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter, a risk assessment firm recently profiled by NPR, raised $10 million and hired top scientists from the federal government in a bid to help businesses and property owners prepare for a changing climate.

“Hugely important, globally significant, gigantic economic problem, not currently being addressed.”

                                                    Rich Sorkin, CEO, Jupiter

And of course, defense contractor Raytheon forecasts a boon in weapon sales:   “Domestically, the effects of climate change could overwhelm disaster-response capabilities. Internationally, climate change may cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments.”

Want to learn more?

The Center for Climate and Security

Publications

Slides from the presentation

NOTE:  If you haven’t followed NPR and Frontline’s coverage of the economic devastation wrought be Hurricane Maria and the inadequacy of the federal response, I recommend reading/watching it here.  Maria, of course, was the third major hurricane that required federal aid in the fall of 2017.

 

 

 

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:

Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

If you Google the phrase “My friend is addicted to _______,” you do not get “opiod” (which is good). You get “phone.”

There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively. Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we’ve maintained a hands-off approach — so far.

Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their opt-in personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire online now haunt us for days.

We took a white-hat approach, jumping into the thick of it. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. We joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  When I saw our CEO recently, he reminded me, “We were so far ahead of our time.”

But if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.

Revisiting “Be Nice”: #BeNice2.0

In late July of 2017, I pushed my way into an airless warehouse-turned performance space to be part of an enthusiastic audience for this year’s “Sixty by 60,” the annual fundraiser for the Fusebox Festival, a not-to-be-missed series of glorious international art, dance, opera and all-round inventiveness that happens every Spring in Austin, Texas. For free.

Fusebox’s 60×60 gives performers 60 seconds to say what they want to say.

The piece I remember most vividly featured a young African-American woman wearing a white t-shirt that read in bold, black letters, “Be Nice.”  A small woman, standing in the middle of the stage, she invited the 200 of sweating her sweating audience to pick up the white t-shirts she’d placed on their chairs and wave them over head, joining her in shouting “Be Nice!” to loud music.

The reference to the iconic New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas’ white handkerchief was there: Put your backfield in motion, even when your audience waves Confederate flags.

But 2017 brought us a new president, Travis Kalanick, Harvey Weinstein, shootings by and of policemen, fake news, children gunned down in churches, and more.  There is a lot of material to work with during 2018.

Though if it were up to me, a woman raised with the same words, I would make it BeNice2.0 to make it clear we’re done with the old “nice at a price.” We don’t need enemies. We need collaborators, supporters, friends, critics who are willing to listen.

The other thing I like about BeNice2.0 is that it takes us beyond “be kind,” unquestionably a necessary and admirable life rule.  To me, BeNice2.0, suggests a more active, engaging stance. Ask for what you need, point out unfair behavior, propose better approaches. Be active; #BeNice2.0

These amazing times and their cost

I fought my way through Friday night traffic to see my friend Shiva’s daughter perform in their Christmas play, “A Play in a Manger.”  I expected Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds.  What I saw was an hour-long rock-and-roll production built around a plot line of “bigger is not better.”  Mary and Joseph were supplanted by a production manager and a worried production crew and cast, some 20 kids in all.

Everybody got a speaking part, reaching up to the standing microphones like little gold fish getting their supper.).  Shaylee, whose family is from Iran, added what I learned later was an improvised dance number for her part.  The epilogue was this:  “Christmas is not about Walmart or Saks. ipads or iphones.”  That is, it’s not about stuff, because stuff costs a lot of money.

I thought about this when I stopped into my local Wal-Mart for socks and was astounded to find all of the cashiers were gone, erased.  In their place were scanners, waiting for a credit (or debit) card. When I asked the attendant where those workers — mostly women, mostly African-American, mostly over 40 — I got a shrug.

According Fortune, citing a McKinsey Global Institute report released in November, “between 400 million and 800 million workers around the world could be displaced by automation by 2030.”  By comparison, the 2016 population of Texas was 27.36 million.  Think about that — that’s 15 Texas’.

Most affected will be jobs that involve collecting and processing data – everything from accounting to fast food.  The report predicts the pace of displacement will be unprecedented, concluding  “There are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

In a recent column, David Brooks had some suggestions for lawmakers to consider, a list that targets practical but oftentimes insurmountable barriers like making it easier for people to:

  • Get to work
  • Get a license
  • Enter fast-growing professions like health care
  • As ex-offenders, navigate the application process

It’s painful to experience the season as one of “haves” and “have nots,”  and easy to turn away we dash through the holiday fully armed.  But here’s hoping each of us has an opportunity to pause and reflect, not just on how very lucky we are, but how we can help those who are less so, navigate these times.