An Agenda For The 116th Congress: Move Faster Than the Speed of Technology
Thursday, Jan. 3 was truly an amazing day to be in Washington. Regardless of one’s politics, it is inspiring to see the United States Congress reflect America’s diversity better than ever before. But Congress doesn’t have much time to reflect on the moment. With technology and innovation moving forward at blazing speed, Congress must move fast to get out in front of the disruptions being caused by technological change and globalization. As my friend and former colleague, newly-elected Representative Haley Stevens put it, “We are the doers. We’re the defenders of democracy. We’re here to make it work.”
So many of the most important issues we are discussing today are directly related to science and technology. Whether its climate change, data misuse by Big Tech, Russian hacking or Chinese trade practices – the main issues that Congress will be deliberating (after government re-opens) all relate to our inability to understand scientific and technological change, and to use the tools of government to address them.
Congress on climate change
On the most pressing issue that we face – how to mitigate climate change, this Congress got very lucky. The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment already did the work for them. This US government sponsored report lays out a course of action to mitigate the effects of climate change in the United States and worldwide, while also outlining the problems if we don’t. Congress must implement as many of the recommendations of the Assessment as possible. It can fund greater research and innovation in the areas of climate science – from clean vehicles to plant-based foods to alternative energy sources. It can regulate greenhouse gas emissions by polluters and provide economic adjustment assistance for coal communities to switch to cleaner industries. And it can leverage the vast reach of the federal government to nudge society towards a reduced footprint.
Secondly, Congress must hold “Big Tech” to task. Since the tech and life sciences industries have not shown the maturity to regulate themselves or think about the ramifications of their “business models” on society, it’s up to Congress to do so. There are concerns about American cyber-security amid the constant attacks on our networks from certain foreign governments. There is the misuse of personal information by Facebook, Google and others. And there is the widespread willingness in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York and other tech hubs to blindly accept Chinese investment in return for sharing intellectual property – with little concern for the long-term impact of the United States.
Third, Congress must develop a domestic economic agenda that acknowledges the role of high growth tech entrepreneurs in creating American jobs while putting the proper infrastructure in place to make the tech sector more inclusive, geographically diverse, and less reliant on foreign investors. According the US Census Bureau Office of Business Dynamics, high-growth US startups have created more than 50% of American jobs since 2000. Congress’ innovation agenda must include much greater R&D funding, support for much greater commercialization of government-funded research, ubiquitous broadband or Wi-Fi access nationally, and greater protections from intellectual property theft by foreign competition and governments, as candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren have already called for.
These enormous challenges can only be met by a Congress and President who understand technological change and collaborate to address it. As we have seen repeatedly, our political leaders and policy makers have generally reacted to technology rather than proactively managed it. But we cannot react to new technologies like AI – they move too fast. Members of the 116th Congress and their talented staff must proactively develop four important capabilities related to innovation and technology – and they need to do so rapidly and in parallel.
First, Congress must develop the capacity to learn much more quickly about technological innovation. In the two years that will define the 116thCongress, we will see rapid developments in autonomous vehicles, CRISPR gene editing technology, drone usage and of course, artificial intelligence. Every Congressional committee will have to understand the impact of these various technologies on their portfolio – from foreign affairs to health care, commerce or energy. A concerted effort to understand the underlying technology, its implications in the long and short-term, and a regulatory framework for industry to follow will be critical.
Secondly, the Congress, through funding for federal programs, R&D and community partnerships, must nurture these nascent technologies by supporting their usage in areas that benefit Americans. For example, we know that the artificial intelligence is changing how people learn. Congress should take the lead and push the education sector to understand AI and implement AI-enabled curriculum and learning tools that make our primary, secondary and higher education institutions into global leaders. As New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has said in his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late”, even adults must be prepared to retrain themselves every few years to be prepared for the technologies that are disrupting industries.
Many of these new technologies are going to change the way that we organize society over the next decades. Autonomous vehicles will directly affect millions of Americans who drive for a living and how all Americans organize their commutes and lives. Thirdly, the 116th Congress must determine how to organize the federal government around the coming transitions and ensure a regulatory environment that unleashes private enterprise while safeguarding society. Autonomous vehicles, for example, will require oversight from multiple federal agencies.
We are in the middle of a period of great innovation driven by the expanding capabilities of computing technology – impacting the growth of the Internet, mobile communication, Big Data and even sectors like health care, life sciences and agriculture. The fourth capability that the 116thCongress must develop is to start monitoring, and possibly regulating, these technologies before they get out of hand. This is not to clamp down on the private sector, but to create a fair set of rules, up front, to provide rapid, yet equal, access to new technologies in a fair, cost-effective and ethical manner. Already, the inability of Congress over the last few years to protect personal data, cyber networks or regulate the growth of autonomous vehicles has led to crisis, confusion and a fear that Big Tech is beyond government oversight.
For over a decade now, Silicon Valley has complained that Washington ignores its transformative technologies and disruptions. In 2018, Washington paid a lot of attention to Silicon Valley, but for all the wrong reasons. Given the huge amount of work that Congress needs to do on so many fronts, this would be a great time for Silicon Valley, Tech, Life Sciences and other innovation industries to invest heavily in the 116thCongress – not through campaign contributions, but to help Congress to learn about, nurture and help organize society around the transformative breakthroughs they believe so strongly can benefit all of us.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.