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Elections 2020 October 6, 2020

Five big questions as America votes: The geopolitical impacts of technology

By GeoTech Center

As part of the Atlantic Council’s Elections 2020 programming, the New Atlanticist will feature a series of pieces looking at the major questions facing the United States around the world as Americans head to the polls.

Rapid developments in technology impact social, political, and economic issues both locally and globally. As the US presidential election nears, it is critical for Americans to consider the ways technology can both provide solutions and create challenges in the future.

Below are the five major questions facing the United States on the geopolitical impacts of technology as the US elections approach, answered by five top experts:

What future does the United States want for data and how we ensure data benefits both individuals and communities?

Policymakers will follow the tide of public, media, and corporate thinking on data. To ensure that data benefits individuals and communities, the United States must adopt different ways of thinking about the data we all create. We can start by moving the conversation away from a focus on privacy to one based on values-sharing. Current thinking provides people with only two choices when it comes to their data: allow a huge corporation to take all the value in the data each of us creates and determine how it is used, or follow some version of the European model where we can destroy all the value we create in data so no one can use it.

A third and much better option is to ensure each of us can share in the value of the data we create. Just as we would not frame a conversation about wages or intellectual rights through the lens of privacy, there are better ways to approach the question of ownership and usage of data.

Along with moving away from a privacy framework, we need to better understand what data is and represents. Behavioral data at its most fundamental level is a massive crowdsourcing exercise. The value and insight behavioral data provides are there because people have already uncovered them—often unconsciously or without the awareness that millions like them have as well. The reason data has value is that individuals are not simply “users” but co-creators and collaborators in developing the insights data enables.

That doesn’t mean we can claim all the value created. As with workers in a factory, the value created from data requires people to coordinate our efforts, a space to work in, and a marketplace for the product we create. There are many devils in the details and challenges with forming and managing Data Trusts and other mechanisms to share data’s value back with its creators. But policymakers must move in that direction, and to do so, we need to shift the way we talk and think about data and its creators.

Eric Sapp is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center.

What future does the United States want for data, trust, and increasing resilience across communities and sectors?

The future of data, trust, and resilience across communities will be determined by how we educate and empower our youngest citizens.

While I cannot speak for the United States as a whole, I can speak as an American mother, engineer, and professor. Government policies and actions are built on the interpretation and presentation of data, so we must question how such data is collected and analyzed, as well as who has access to it. The United States has long been considered a technical and scientific power, but it is arguable that our government representatives have not supported, nor stayed well informed on, current breakthroughs and understandings in these fields.

Even more concerning, we are at a time in American history where trust is becoming a rare thing. Many Americans feel let down by the systems and structures around them. When provably false statements regarding US health and economics are being made publicly by top government officials, it becomes crucial that all citizens ask themselves what they trust and how they can verify the things that they hear.

It is also important that they have access to the data. To do this, we must learn how to assess statements, analyze data we are presented with, and think critically about many topics. To build these skills, we must strive to provide quality, engaging, responsive, and relevant education for all children, particularly with regards to information literacy and critical thinking.

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas is a nonresident senior fellow in the GeoTech Center.

What future does the United States want for data and the future of work in our country?

Data, in all its ubiquity, is an outcome of digitization. While the digital transformation of the US economy and society has been underway for over two decades, there was significant acceleration in both the quality and quantity of data available over the last five years. This combined with dramatic advances in optimization algorithms, and parallel computing embodied in Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) led to breakthroughs in deep learning, a type of machine learning. Deep learning powers many of the widely reported AI advances such as in vision, language translation, speech recognition, and decision-making.  While it’s easy to understand how many of these breakthroughs have changed the world, what do will they mean for the future of work?

To answer this question, we must step back and think about the work done in sectors ranging from agriculture to services not as one “job” but a collection of tasks. For example, farm workers monitoring crops need situational awareness to determine if plants are afflicted by disease and decide on the appropriate combination of soil nutrients and non-toxic herbicides to deploy. Classification of the digitized images of the plants determine disease state and data from sensors in the soil and weather data on rainfall can be used to decide on the optimal combination of nutrients to restore health. This illustrates how two tasks performed by farm workers would be augmented using data driven technology thereby enabling farms to produce larger yields. Clearly, today farm workers using the technology are focusing on performing a different set of tasks than previous farmers who did all these tasks without data-driven technology. Thus, when work is viewed as collection of tasks, data driven technology is going to substitute some tasks and modify other tasks, thereby changing the nature of work.

These technology-led changes will result in the re-engineering and redesign of work by firms. In turn, this will lead to investments in IT infrastructure by firms and the demand for skilled individuals to fill the new roles and task configurations. Given the pace of technological change, workers should be incentivized to continually invest in upskilling. This should be paid for in good measure through financial contributions from both their employer and the government. For example, in France, employees maintain a personal training account with contributions from the employer and the government.

The impact of this technological change does not affect each citizen equally. People with the skills to either create the technology or work effectively in concert with the technology will see economic gains while individuals who performed the tasks that the technology can perform at a lower cost or more efficiently will be left behind.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of data, methodologies, and the shaping of the future of work. The need for making education and skills training available to workers is more urgent than ever before, and the broad acceptance of education and work through Zoom offers the potential to harness data and technology to deliver this education. The end goal is to find pathways to economic opportunity through proven techniques that can contend with the growing technical and human elements for our future.

Dr. Ramayya Krishnan is a commissioner at the GeoTech Center.

What future does the United States want addressing COVID-19 and future outbreaks with better tech?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fracture lines in society, but it has also provided the United States an opportunity to leverage technology to create the equivalent of a global immune system. Immune systems perform three main functions—they constantly surveil for novel threats, they mobilize a force to mitigate damage, and they develop their resources to fight future invaders. Technology solutions can and should be adapted to these functions to serve as global monitors for future outbreaks.

The equivalent technology solutions in the surveillance domain create decentralized networks and data aggregation models that can pull in data signals of multiple types—individual health, public health, passive monitoring of different biomes, satellite data, market signals, and social media—while securing that data and protecting civil liberties. This accelerates technology development in areas like data networks and data science, artificial intelligence, biosensing, and cybersecurity, in addition to providing boosts for basic research and development of these sensing, integration, and security technologies.

The second domain is mitigation. Here biotechnology solutions for testing, vaccine, and therapeutics development will be front and center. The most promising technologies in this space are in synthetic biology—the ability to synthesize genomes and proteins de novo with no more than a genetic sequence string, and the possibility of harnessing biological factories like microbes and plants, that enable us to produce vaccines and therapeutics at scale.

Finally, ensuring technology augments capacity involves bolstering the above mitigation technologies to be rapidly deployable in case of a new pandemic. 3D printing, nanomedicine, adult stem cell technology, CRISPR, cell-based manufacturing, bioprinting and others, can be used to bolster supply chain, capital equipment shortages, consumable for testing and PPE, and health care personnel.

The acceleration of video and telemedicine capabilities, augmented by algorithmic intelligence, has grown exponentially in the months since the pandemic occurred, and will continue to grow and support populations who have been vulnerable and marginalized, improving access to our healthcare systems globally.

Dr. Divya Chander is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoTech Center.

What future does the United States want for space and making the benefits of satellites in space available to all?

From working closely with our customers, we know that secure, timely, and cost-effective access to data are important for ensuring the vast benefits of space are available to all. Global civil, commercial, and government partnerships can drive space innovation and accelerate broader access in ways that maximize the extraordinary value we see in collaboration across sectors and nations. Industry, academia, and space agencies around the globe must collaborate on the unique challenges we are facing, as well as the opportunities that will arise within a collective enterprise.

Secure, flexible, and cost-efficient cloud solutions can enhance nearly all space missions by expanding access to operations, which then transforms the process of data collection and sharing in a trusted environment. For example, serverless computing enables NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to offset massively complex problems in the cloud for rapid prototyping and quick analysis, which provides scientists and engineers data points to focus on the future. This flexibility in computing can lead to discoveries of exoplanets, enable control and communication with interplanetary spacecraft and all-terrain robots, and accelerate analysis of data captured by Mars Exploration Rovers 79 million miles from Earth.

It is time for the United States to lead in the access, operation, exploration, and further discovery of space; we can provide a path to making these benefits  more widely available by ensuring a global aerospace and satellite industry that accesses a comprehensive, space-based cloud platform. Accelerating innovation as a global aerospace and satellite industry is vital to enabling future missions and sharing information for the benefit of all.

Teresa Carlson is the Commission Co-Chair at the GeoTech Center and Vice President of the Worldwide Public Sector at Amazon Web Services.

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.

Related Experts: Eric Sapp, AnnMarie P. Thomas, PhD, and Divya Chander

Image: Photo by @johnladams on Unsplash