Asking Tomorrow’s Questions

Asking Tomorrow’s Questions:

As we move on from the Waterwheel Economy

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies

Washington, DC

In his extraordinary book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and one of the tech gurus of our age, points out that around the time of the American revolution, waterwheels were not halving in price every year. Not.

I’m still mulling the book, which will need to be reckoned with by every serious-minded person (if only because Walt Isaacson commends it in unusually serious terms). But there’s no better illustration of the dilemma of America, and in particular of Washington, in 2010. We have a terrific system for the waterwheel economy. It is not faring quite so well in the age of the chip. Stasis is so day-before-yesterday.

So a series of insurgent challenges is being posed, the most insistent on the innovation front. But this is not just about innovation, and setting the ground-rules to enable the U.S. economy to be competitive at a time when the rules have been drastically changed by advances around the planet and the move to a global economic order. It’s about innovation, but back of issues like R. and D. tax credits and visa reform and a vastly needed and overdue overhaul in public education lies something yet more significant. The story of the 20th century was one in which the United States took over Britain’s role as the dominant economic and military power, and allied it with thought leadership that extended from politics to law to science and engineering – producing far and away the most successful nation this globe has seen. And while Americans and others will always have their disagreements about this or that aspect of the story, backstopping failing imperial Britain (and France!) in two Euro-world wars, going head-to-head with Soviet Russia for as long as it took, sending Nixon to China in an extraordinary and aptly operatic move – and building this ARPANET thing that has changed the world’s life for good, and for good and all – the American stamp on the 20th century is indelible. The question is of the 21st, and it goes far, far beyond whether Intel or its successor will end up as a Chinese enterprise, and whether “the next big thing” will splash down far from the land of zip codes (a prospect Intel’s Otellini, who has emerged as the smartest and loudest champion of U.S. innovation, keeps pointing out; anyone really, really listening at either end of Pennsylvania Ave?).

Put one way, the problem is one of “the vision thing,” on the large scale. I’ve written before about our crisis in leadership, which without prejudice to some fine women and men is profound and chronic. I am not convinced that this is a problem inherent in the democratic order, or the American version of it, though there is not the slightest doubt that the shorter the electoral cycle, the more challenging the demands of visionary leadership. I was recently in China, and in conversation with one of the adroit, humane, intelligent persons who are coming to dominate this vast engine of the future. And I said: I must be honest; your country does not face some of the special problems that western democracies do, because your leaders can build a vision for the long term (he merely smiled). And in times of swift change, that can be and may finally and fatefully prove to be vital to success. Point is: western, and especially U.S., leaders must find it within them to look much further ahead, and cast such a vision to the citizens who place and sustain them in power. Ironically, as we know, greater flexibility and faster, more imaginative decision-making are strongly correlated with longer-term vision.

Yet where does that vision arise? It comes from a due sense of what matters, in the medium to long term (which for our purposes can be 5-10-15 years). And we know there is much that matters. According to our several political and cultural traditions, we focus on family values, or the rights of minorities, or the dynamics of workplace organizing, or success on Wall Street, or the freedom of the individual (whether ACLU-style or the sometimes overlapping view from the right, or the more radical libertarian take). These things matter. We all of us locate ourselves in one or perhaps more than one of these hampers of political goods. And so we should. But a way must be found to focus also, and equally, on the vast issue of a future – powered by Moore’s Law and those little circuits his company turns out by the million, powered by that ARPANET thing with the web and “search” imposing remarkable order upon it, and scanning the horizon for the explosive impacts of one new technology on another – from bio to robotics to neuroscience – as they are caught by the rolling shockwave of nanoscale exponential convergence. We truly ain’t seen nothing yet. Both/and. Progressive AND future-oriented. Social conservative AND embracing a vision for 2025. Tea Party AND tracking the transhumanists. Google alerts for C as well as B and A. Or is walking and chewing gum beyond us? Note to ideologues of all kinds: sure, this future focus will affect our current agenda, of course it will. Politics is about a combo of principle and priority. The future is going to have to nose its way in to every one of our current political traditions, and what the final impact of that will be we can’t yet guess.

But the key to the answer lies in asking Tomorrow’s Questions, not today’s. I’ve already suggested that every political appointee should be tested for their innovation-mindedness (which is something the current or next administration could do in a heartbeat, and I believe that heartbeat could transform this nation’s prospects and our global leadership, just fyi). I’ve suggested, more humorously and a little sadly, that every elected federal representative should be required to attend a series of technology conferences every year. And how about this: every presidential debate should have two equal parts: questions from the present, and questions from the future. No leader of a great power can any longer survive and succeed unless she or he is a serious futurist. We need to know. She or he will also need to fit one of the major political-social traditions from which we cull leaders, and be able to give an account of today’s agenda, deeply rooted as it is in yesterday. But unless there is an equal and opposite and potentially critical reaction to that agenda rooted in tomorrow, the nation’s prospects are parlous; to put it plainly, our goose is cooked in the global oven. We need vibrant political leadership on both sides of the aisle, and from the several sectors that make up each side, that is qualified in Tomorrow’s Questions. Just as the ABA scrutinizes candidates for high judicial office, and declares them qualified or not, we need a new politics of pre-qualification. Hands up if you disagree.

But what are Tomorrow’s Questions? In broad terms some are very obvious. They are not all about technology, indeed at one level few are, but they are all raised or raised afresh by technology – and they illustrate the manner in which while the future will still be about people and their societies, it will also and always be freighted with the impact of technology. Privacy. Intellectual Property. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, especially applied to humanoids and what that means for the workforce (and warfare). Sustainability, in the complex political and ecological systems of tomorrow. Where lies U.S. competitive advantage when high-end manufacturing and innovation have migrated, or at least equally dispersed, to Asia? How do we find security and freedom in a world gripped by asymmetry, and the technologies that enable it? What will it mean if human lives keep getting longer, and longer? And neuroscience: if the brain is chemically explicable, what price jurisprudence – a M’Naughten Defense (note for non-lawyers: insanity) for everyone? And what about “enhancements,” in which we – or some of us – get smart chips in our brains? And we connect direct from the brain to the web, and communications devices? These are some samples. Not one of them has anything measurable in the way of political salience in 2010. Each of them has vast implications for leadership in the decade to come. And a word to candidates and their potential inquisitors: generalized pap will not count as an answer. “Don’t know” is fine as an answer, as long as you show you understand the question and its import, because then you will be motivated to go find out. If we need to, let’s try the polygraph. Or is this not serious enough for that?

So C-PET has set its agenda to elicit (gather) and elucidate (clarify) Tomorrow’s Questions, and bring the most expert panels together to consider them. It isn’t that we don’t think today’s are important; but today’s more rudimentary questions are someone else’s job and pretty much everyone else is doing it. And it isn’t that there are lacking exceedingly smart people in the federal government who spend their time and energies on these issues, though most of them need both more prominence and more money if they are going to make much difference. The NSF “converging technologies” conferences in the early 2000s scoped the territory nicely. To be blunt: give OSTP the clout of OMB, stuff it with visionaries like Roco and Bainbridge and Kurzweil and Whitesides and Augustine, and we are on our way to being home and dry. We have smart people and key offices. But they do not set the pace, frame the questions, shape the conversation, lead the thinking of the nation. And this is about leadership and a fundamental shift in the ways of thinking and doing of a nation that has been top dog for three generations and wants to keep the job. America has begun to do what vigorous, successful superpowers always have at a certain point in their trajectory, and it is a dangerous thing from which recovery will require dynamic change: it has begun to take itself for granted. If you think I’m mongering in scare, go west, young man, and keep going west, right through Menlo Park, until you hit the far side of the Pacific rim, and then tell me I’m wrong.

Neither is this an effort to focus America away from its past. One of the most engaging features of the modern world is the degree to which as we jet-set around we move in and out of cultures profoundly shaped by their respective pasts. The survival of highly divergent societies in 2010, like on a more local scale that of regional accents across America and every nation, is counter-intuitive but vital to our understanding of the present. The United States may be the nation most self-conscious of its past, rooted as it is in the very deliberate acts and words of the founders that divorced this nation from its imperial overlord and set the rules as immigrants arrived from all corners. If the question is, what would the founders want of the internet, or synthetic biology, or nanoscale engineering, so be it. They were among the greatest minds of their Enlightenment age, and they knew all about science, and change; they even thought up the USPTO.

Neither is this simply an effort at 21st century techno-jingoism; and it’s important to make this point and to note it, as the United States needs to be lead global citizen as well as its keenest global competitor. Part of America’s role in the generation ahead is to compete, and to compete successfully as Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage enables us, as we believe, to find what we can do best and benefit the world in the process. Part of it is also to show how high-tech can be high-touch; how our leading global techno-culture can be the most humane and culturally sophisticated of societies. These go together.

Here, then, is an open invitation. Send us your list of the top 10 questions, either in one-sentence form or with paragraphs and references. Explain why you see them as key. Our hopper has a broad opening and nothing will go to waste. We shall work on the best ideas, circulate and recirculate, visit and revisit our list, and press Tomorrow’s Questions as the questions that must be addressed today.

The waterwheel economy is dead, and the world of information, asymmetry, and exponential change is upon us. It will not do for our political establishment to keep its eyes wide shut as we look ahead, or – at best – squint into the sunlight. Time for full frontal engagement with tomorrow.

Cameron Commentaries #7

May be reproduced in full and with attribution.

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