Joe Biden is now the 46th President of the United States. His plate is overflowing with problems and – depending on one’s level of optimism – opportunities. Obvious problems aside – Covid-19, the economy, social, economic and political divisions, insurrection and eroding international influence, just to name a few – there are also some digital technology challenges he faces, especially after the last administration’s inability to adequately enable digital technology on behalf of all Americans and restrict foreign-born scientists, engineers and technologists from practicing their professions in the US.
I wrote about this before – several times. But now there are real possibilities with the new Biden Administration. What appears below is a strategic agenda for the 21st century organized around some real corporate vested interests.
Let’s briefly restate the problems. The US:
- Ranks 25th in the world in R&D tax credits
- Has fallen out of the top ten in global innovation
- Is losing the AI arms race
- Is experiencing falling rankings in computer science and engineering
- Is #11 in the world in “technological readiness”
- According to Microsoft – 162,000,000 Americans are without high speed Internet service (while 33,000,000 Americans don’t use the Internet at all)
- Has weak or non-existent regulatory policy around what is unquestionably the future’s most powerful economic engine …
There are other challenges, so now what? Some – fortunately – can be seen as is low-hanging fruit in a target-rich environment. But some are very difficult to solve. Let’s revisit the top ten with some updates since we last discussed “The Trump Technology Ten” and “Joe Biden – Here’s a Technology Plan for You”:
- Privacy & Surveillance
- Misinformation & Disinformation
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)
- AI, Machine Learning & Automation
- The Internet
1. Privacy & Surveillance
Regulators need to address the growing surveillance culture, which includes the deployment of facial recognition technologies and other technologies designed to track citizens. The Surveillance Economy is now in full swing. Assuming you live online and, therefore, provide your personal, professional, location, and behavioral data on a regular basis, there’s not much left that’s protected by regulators. This is a tough one, because serious regulation here would threaten the monetization of surveilled data, which is a major pillar of the country’s digital economic foundation. For those who scream “freedom” all the time, this regulation should be music to their ears.
2. Misinformation & Disinformation
The need for regulation in the area of misinformation is screaming from every broadcast tower in the country. The problem, of course — again — is business models that depend upon misinformation, such as public and private media that win by attracting as many participants as possible, even if the participants are loathsome. The regulatory agenda here is complex since it involves the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That said, there’s a floor upon which “free speech” builds. Hate websites weaken the foundation. The exploitation of media access and the manipulation of content for political advantage require regulation. The dissemination of false content over public networks requires regulation. The widespread belief that Covid is a hoax – or worse, a planned event – is a perfect case in point. After over 25,000,000 infections and 450,000 deaths, we can rest assured it’s not a hoax (or can we). Such beliefs obviously harm the body politic.
Recategorizing technology companies as the media companies they are is overdue. An amazing recent development is social media companies self-regulating hate-speech off of their platforms. Should decisions about who’s on and who’s off rest with a handful of CEOs? Of course not; this is a job for regulators. Note that many other democracies deal with hate speech and related much more effectively than the US. The Biden Administration should look closely at how these countries manage misinformation and disinformation and proceed accordingly.
The US ranks 25th in the world in R&D tax credits. The federal government needs to dramatically increase R&D tax credits to get the country in the top 5. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) Senior Fellow Joe Kennedy tells us that“Germany, the UK and China are sweetening the pot, while the US slides.” Accordingto Kennedy, “The United States needs to follow the international trend. The [ITIF] has called for increasing the tax credit’s Alternative Simplified Credit to at least 20% from its current rate of 14%.”
So what will happen in the Biden Administration? Ideally, R&D (and other) credits are separated from overall tax policy and not negotiated as a “trade-off” among unrelated issues. Since tax credits are, well, credits, such proposals should receive bipartisan support; and who wants to campaign for office as an enemy of innovation?
How is it possible to fly a drone onto the White House lawn (as occurred a few years ago)? Drones are the least of our problems with (broadly defined) “robotics.” Where are the regulations around manufacturing robotics? Farm robotics? Autonomous vehicles? Robotic concierges? This is an opportunity for Biden to meld technology with coherent technology policy. Currently, any regulations of robotics and AI are spread out across too many organizations. The Federal Aviation Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have some of the responsibility when it comes to robotics regulations. However, this arrangement doesn’t allow for full coverage or expertise in this highly technical and rapidly changing field.
While the US federal government is lagging behind technological advances across the board, many states are struggling to come up with their own solutions. Legislation on autonomous vehicles has been passed in Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia, as well as in Washington, DC, since 2012. However, when you compare the body of legislation to that of the airline industry, it doesn’t even come close. If every department only addresses the robotics issues that affect it directly, there’s no across-the-board policy, which can lead to confusion. Can we expect an integrated set of regulations around robotics? While other countries have begun the regulatory process, the US lags way behind. Hopefully 2021 is a catch-up year.
I cannot think of a more important foundational step the US can take to improve the technology infrastructure of the US than supporting STEM education, which is why the “US Department of Education Fulfills Administration Promise to Invest $200 Million in STEM Education.” is laughable. STEM education helps everyone. Federal STEM funding should be increased by at least 10-fold. Federal STEM educational guidelines should include funding for state-run STEM educational and training programs. Matching federal funding of state-funded programs should also be widely available – and permanent (since technology doesn’t stand still). Hopefully, the Biden Administration, under the leadership of Secretary Miguel Cardona, will invest heavily in such obvious technology infrastructure in public and private schools.
Data reporter Rani Molla succinctly describes how the immigration barriers the Trump Administration imposed made it increasingly difficult for skilled workers to come to the US:
“Using executive orders, the president (Trump has) made it more difficult — and expensive – to hire high-skilled tech workers from other countries. The administration … throttled a program that encouraged entrepreneurs to come to the US. It … (ended) work permits for spouses of H-1B holders, who … (were) often highly skilled professionals themselves, among other measures to stop immigration. One result … (was) a net decline in high-skilled visas, known as H-1Bs, which has been bad for tech companies in the US (but good for Canada).”
Similarly, a Wired headline from early 2019 highlighted: “Visa Rejections for Tech Workers Spike Under Trump.” What else needs to be said about the race for the best and brightest? Sane technology policy (and resultant regulations) will incentivize the best and brightest around the world to seek the US as their professional destination.
This was a dangerous, bizarre strategy whose consequences will be felt for decades even as President Biden begins to reverse it. Regulators must continue to reverse these policies; policy must reflect the desire to attract and retain the best and brightest if technological competitiveness is the objective. If ever there was a no-brainer national policy, this it — or just campaign as someone who wants to ban the best and brightest from the US regardless of how many jobs they create or how many companies they found (like Google, eBay and Tesla).
Amazon owns around 50% of the e-commerce market, followed by eBay (6.6%), Apple (3.9%), Walmart (3.7%), and Home Depot (1.5%). Four vendors own close to 75% of the cloud infrastructure market (Amazon Web Services [AWS], 33%; Microsoft, 13%; IBM, 8%; Google, 6%; and Alibaba, 4%, as of Q1 2018), and three providers — AWS, Microsoft, and Google — own 55% of the overall cloud market. Google owns over 90% of the Internet search market. Facebook continues to dominate social media, followed by YouTube (Google), WhatsApp (Facebook), Facebook Messenger (Facebook), WeChat (Tencent), and Instagram (Facebook). Microsoft owns 36% of the worldwide operating system market, behind Android at 42% (Google and the Open Handset Alliance). The same market trends are seen in other industries, such as ridesharing, where Uber and Lyft own over 70% of the market.
Policies that reflect a commitment to competition and innovation should yield regulations about what’s acceptable and what’s not, since it’s impossible to compete with oligarchies with decades-long leads. David Wessel, writing in the Harvard Business Review, is clear:
“Despite their undeniable popularity, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are drawing increasing scrutiny from economists, legal scholars, politicians, and policy wonks, who accuse these firms of using their size and strength to crush potential competitors. Technology giants pose unique challenges, but they also represent just one piece of a broader story: a troubling phenomenon of too little competition throughout the US economy.”
It’s time to aggressively resurrect antitrust — not just talk about it. The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division will hopefully be very active, as The American Economic Liberties Project suggests it should. Those that champion economic freedom and innovation should love anti-trust investigations.
The US digital infrastructure is leaky, to put it ridiculously, embarrassingly mildly. Just as dangerous, the digital infrastructure and the most popular applications — such as social media — are vulnerable to manipulation by terrorists, hackers, adversaries, and human and software bots. According to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), threats are everywhere and growing. DHS believes that the US should:
“… reduce threats from cyber criminals. In partnership with other law enforcement agencies, DHS must prevent cybercrime and disrupt criminals and criminal organizations who use cyberspace to carry out their illicit activities and leverage identified threat activity and trends to inform national risk management efforts.”
The problem is enormous and growing faster than anyone can even measure. The 2020 US federal budget for cybersecurity, which included funding for the Defense and State departments (among other agencies), was up a paltry 4.7%. Note that the last “budget proposal asks for more than $9.6 billion for Defense Department cyber operations and just over $1 billion for civilian cybersecurity efforts.” That’s $1 billion for civilian cybersecurity efforts, and a 4.7% overall increase in the cybersecurity budget. Funding is dwarfed by the problem. The federal cybersecurity budget should be increased by at least 100% across the board every year until the threat is manageable — noting that the problem will never disappear. But it can, with proper funding, become manageable.
Prediction? Perhaps the 2020 massive breach in the US’s infrastructure and defense agencies – which was largely ignored by the Trump Administration – will stimulate some new thinking and funding. It’s impossible to believe that the Biden Administration will not respond to the attacks in every possible way, including huge new – and ongoing – huge investments in cybersecurity.
9. Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning & Automation
The Trump Executive Order on “Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence,” issued 11 February 2019, was, one hopes, just an early shot in the AI war, a war the US is already losing, especially in areas such as robotics. As described by MIT Technology Review Senior Editor for AI Will Knight:
“The initiative is designed to boost America’s AI industry by reallocating funding, creating new resources, and devising ways for the country to shape the technology even as it becomes increasingly global … however, while the goals are lofty, the details are vague. And it will not include a big lump sum of funding for AI research.”
As Knight points out, “other nations, including China, Canada, and France, have made bigger moves to back and benefit from the technology in recent years.” Artificial intelligence and machine learning are enormous economic engines. The US cannot afford to lag here. The other side of AI, machine learning and robotics, of course, is the automation that threatens livelihoods. Certain industries will be clobbered by automation which some companies will as welcome as some Americans fear. It’s already late in the automation response game.
The Biden Administration must assess AI/ML competitors and dramatically increase funding which should include support for industry partnerships like what we saw with Trump’s Warp Speed initiative to develop Covid-19 vaccines. It must also plan for the inevitability of job displacement which has already begun. STEM education is one response, but more will be need to avoid widespread unemployment especially in certain areas. The Biden Administration should acknowledge this inevitability and plan accordingly. Andrew Yang has some creative ideas here.
Candidate Biden had this one covered:
“In a 21st century economy, Americans need broadband … broadband is a prerequisite for starting a business, working remotely, accessing government resources, and engaging in public debate … Biden will … direct the federal government – especially the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – to support cities and towns that want to build municipally-owned broadband networks … to encourage those providers to invest in further extending service to rural communities and tribal areas … Biden will work with Congress to pass the Digital Equity Act, to help communities tackle the digital divide.”
If the US wants to compete nationally and globally, the Internet should become a public utility, no different from water, electricity or natural gas. It should be subsidized and managed accordingly. Let’s hope President Biden pursues these goals.
It’s not clear how Biden wants to pursue and implement these recommendations – several of which he officially shares in one form or another. As always, strategy is easier than tactics. It’s a matter of priorities and that list is already jampacked. Given where the US stands today, it’s tempting to agree to temporarily sideline some of the technology 10. Maybe even indefinitely postpone a few of them. The problem, however, is that digital technology is a huge part of the economy’s infrastructure and the path to corporate success, not to mention it’s new role as an at-home and remote educational and management platform. It’s the source of jobs. It keeps us safe. It allow us to compete. It permits the distribution of vaccines and can still enable effective virus contact tracing. It’s not an overstatement to say without digital technology there’s no United States of America. So we must embrace the reality of multiple priorities. All 10 should be highly prioritized – in warp speed.
Corporate Benefits of the Biden Technology Plan
Benefits are everywhere. Let’s revisit the list through corporate eyes.
Privacy, Surveillance & Cybersecurity
Companies can develop customer-friendly brands by championing consumer rights.
Companies should respond as quickly as possible to customer concerns about privacy and surveillance because customers’ concern about surveillance and privacy are growing. Of course, there will be some companies who monetize the personal data they collect. But others – the majority (at least for now) – can develop customer-friendly brands by championing consumer rights.
Misinformation & Disinformation
Companies should be especially conscious today about misinformation and disinformation backlash.
Again, there are companies whose stock and trade is misinformation and disinformation, and those companies mostly have no interest in undermining their own business models. But many others benefit from the same customer-friendly branding as companies who champion privacy. More important is corporate commitments to less or no lying to the public about their products and services. Because of the ease of sharing good and bad information today (and forever), companies must rethink how they message generally and specifically especially when they’ve stumbled. Fessing up – not the instant go-to reaction of enough companies – should become routinized. Wading into politics is also a bad idea. It remains a mystery why some companies consciously decide to align themselves with particular candidates, leaders, political parties or “causes” not in their business model swim lanes.
Innovation & Oligarchy
Who doesn’t benefit from greater national investments in innovation?
If the government builds out an innovation platform, companies can ride on that platform to develop innovative products and services – so long as oligarchs don’t choke them out of the market. Federal law here can be important corporate friends, especially since the right regulations can take some of the pressure off companies whose customers are especially “privacy active.”
Robotics, AI, Machine Learning & Automation
How companies balance their short-term lust for profits and their longer-term market protection will become a major challenge for an enormous number of companies.
US companies stand to benefit significantly from investments in a robotics, AI, machine learning and automaton infrastructure. The challenge of longer-term automation, however, looms large. Jobs will be displaced, and while companies will benefit in the short-term from the cost savings that automation generates, long-term they need to keep their customers flush with enough cash to buy their products and services. How companies balance their short-term lust for profits and their longer-term market protection will become a major challenge for an enormous number of companies (not to mention their commitment to social responsibility).
STEM & Talent
Investments in STEM education fill the pipeline for eager employers. These investments are necessary but insufficient to arm employers with all the right skills – but they will a huge gap in American education, talent and corporate readiness. Companies will still need to invest in employee development thought continuous education and training, especially in emerging computing and business technologies. In the short-term, President Biden has already begun to change damaging H-1B regulations. He must fully reverse these policies and welcome the entrance and residence of the best and brightest regardless of their ethnicity or countries of origin.
The Internet for All
It’s hard to imagine how having all possible customers online is a bad thing for any company on the planet.