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Innovation

Tech Systems Are Outdated, Say Experts Fashioning Briefs for Incoming Administration

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Screenshot from the webinar

November 1, 2020 — The federal government’s outdated technology systems have left America vulnerable, said Cassandra Madison, acting executive director of the Tech Talent Project, during an American Enterprise Institute webinar on Tuesday.

One example of failure occurred when the government’s unemployment website crashed. Another manifest itself in the difficulty of obtaining statistics on how many Americans have been tested for COVID-19. Or even when stimulus checks were mailed to the deceased.

In the year 2020, she said technological failures undermined the capabilities of day-to-day government operations.

The Tech Talent Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project dedicated to increasing the ability of the U.S. government to recruit modern technical leaders, is developing a network of tech experts to conduct in-depth tours of the technology fueling America’s public agencies.

The incoming administration will receive technology-focused agency briefs written by expert technologists and policymakers who served in the agencies to assess items critical for first 200 days of the President’s agenda.

Experts in tech policy in the federal government aim to provide a roadmap for the next administration to follow.

“Seizing the opportunities of technology and ensuring its proper governance requires leaders who deeply understand how technology can affect the American people, our national security, the economy, and our competitiveness in the global landscape,” said Madison.

“Any presidential agenda in the 21st century must prioritize technology expertise to accomplish its goals,” said Nina Hsiang, vice president of policy and government affairs at Devoted Health, adding that the government has not kept pace with technological innovation.

“America’s systems are not just ageing, they are old and outdated,” added Nicole Wong, former deputy chief technology officer of the United States, detailing that the Unites States’ social security website operates on 60 million lines of COBOL, a programming language created in 1959.

Running a $200 million HHS system on COBOL

In one of the worse cases, the Department of Health and Human Services was running on a 50-year-old $200 million system. “Forty private sector experts created a new system that cost $4 million to build and less than $4 million per year to operate, and it worked better,” said Madison.

According to the panelists, $90 billion is spent annually on technology, but a lack of technical understanding by senior leadership prevents investments from delivering results.

The panelists advocated for the federal government to increase national tech talent by investing time and resources to upskill America’s existing workforce, as agencies will need leaders with modern technical expertise from day one.

Further, the administration should prioritize building a modern data infrastructure to enable secure sharing of data within agencies, between agencies, and with the American public.

Finally, the panel called for the federal government to adopt human-centric product development models.

“More attention should be drawn to the experience of end users,” said Hsiang. “People literally have to take off of work and seek assistance to fill out federal applications. We should be able to do better.” Hsiang called for more government services to be offered on mobile-friendly platforms.

“Many people in government are not consumers of the services we’re offering,” added Wong. “They have never been on Medicaid; they’ve never applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s hard to have the right intuition about end users when you have little experience with the users themselves.”

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Innovation

Secretary of State Blinken Says Research and Development Critical For Competition Against China

Blinken was touring the University of Maryland laboratories last week.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken

August 16, 2021 – Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month a key consideration for competition with China is to plow investments in research and development, as the Communist nation continues to do the same and export cheap technologies around the world.

 

“The Chinese and Russian governments, among others, are making the argument in public and private that the United States is in decline,” said Blinken at the University of Maryland on August 9, as he was touring the institution’s laboratories.

 

“Nothing would put to rest faster their specious argument about America’s best days being behind us than if the United States made serious investments in our domestic renewal right now.”

 

The United States, previously being the first in the world for research and development relative to its economic size, has fallen to ninth place, according to a recent UNESCO report. In contrast, China has risen to second, according to the same report.

 

Last week, the Senate passed a $1-trillion infrastructure bill that would lay the groundwork for the future, including a timely $65-billion for broadband to help seal the remote learning and work gap that emerged from the pandemic.

 

Targeting China

 

President Joe Biden’s administration has been coupling economic spending and sanctions against Chinese companies to combat the emerging economic superpower and protect national security. Chinese companies carry great influence on the world stage, few more prominent than leading telecom equipment maker Huawei, which has been the subject of bans in the United States and other parts of the world.

 

For example, while Huawei’s greatest 5G equipment competitors are Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson – with Samsung emerging as a potent player in its own right – it is widely reported that the Chinese company’s equipment sells for cheap, making it a more economic choice for countries in Africa. The Chinese government has been accused of spying.

 

An official from Huawei – which has challenged (but was denied) the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to wade into national security matters when it proposed rules in June to prohibit future authorizations to companies posing potential threats – has previously noted that the company doesn’t have much to worry about with the overtures by the Biden government to ban Chinese companies’ access to American chips because it will just make its own.

 

Blinken’s aims

 

Blinken strongly advocated for the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a bill introduced in April that would boost federal funding for U.S.-based semiconductor manufacturing and provide $52 billion over five years for research initiatives. 

 

By investing in infrastructure, Blinken said he believes that this would be the essential thing that the U.S can do to advance its foreign policy because it will increase foreign trade and investment competitiveness.

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Drones

Aron Solomon: The New Horizon of Drones and Your Privacy

We have yet to wrap our minds around the impact of drones in our own lives and in society.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Aron Solomon, head of digital strategy for Esquire Digital

While so many more of us understand what a drone is today than we did even two years ago, we have yet to wrap our collective minds around the impact of drones in our own lives and the inner workings of our society. Like everything else that’s new and odd for us to see, yet then becomes commonplace, there’s going to be a massive drone adjustment period for people and we may be in it now.

For those of you who might be living on a remote island – wait, there are even drone-flying YouTube celebrities there. Okay, for any of you who actually don’t know what a drone is and can do, a drone is also known as a UAV or unmanned aerial vehicle. While drones themselves are obviously a technology, what is important about them are the other technologies a drone can house.

A drone can have GPS, lasers and many other technologies that are controlled by a user or users on the ground through ground control systems (GSC). In short, a drone can pack whatever the latest technology is. Think of James Bond’s spy shoes, except they fly, look cooler than a pair of brogues, and can easily surveil or even kill you.

Drone usage started small and is getting big. Back in 2016, there were bold predictions that drone usage would triple by 2020. The reality has exceeded that number. A report from June shows that the commercial drone market is growing fairly rapidly with no signs it will slow down:

“The drone manufacturing industry is maturing – and so are drone customers.  As the capabilities of drones increase, they are used for more sophisticated and specific applications.”

While almost anyone could buy and fly a drone a few short years ago (obviously not very close to an airport or a takeoff or landing path) there are a lot more rules today than there ever have been:

  • New FAA rules require all drones to be registered unless they weigh less than 0.55lbs and are used recreationally. There are two types of registration in the United States, part 107 and recreational.
  • You must now mark your drone physically with the registration number.
  • For business usage of a drone, FAA suggests you keep a flight log. They can request information if there is a situation they choose to investigate.
  • It is now illegal to shoot down a drone even if it’s over your own property and you suspect it of recording you. Drones are protected by the NTSB as aircraft.

Tim George, an Erie, Pennsylvania lawyer, cautions us against believing we are still in the Wild, Wild West of drone flight:

“Anyone choosing to operate a drone needs to follow all registration and licensing requirements where they live. It’s important for every drone operator to remember that there might be municipal law they need to follow, as well as state and federal law. Being unaware of applicable drone laws will be no defense to criminal infractions or potential civil claims.”

But how well are people following the law?

Not very, as this iPhone picture I actually took while writing this story highlights. This was taken at the observatory on the top of a mountain in a large North American city, with the premise being that this athlete and his team were using a (pretty intrusive) drone to film him running down a set of stairs.

It is worth noting that I had the same permission in taking that picture as did the person in the pic and their team did in capturing my image, as the drone circled above and around me. In other words, absolutely none.

Ricky Leighton, a Maine-based certified drone pilot and video expert, cautions us that this type of poor behavior will lead to together regulation:

“There are two things to consider here. The first is that drone pilots need to closely observe any rules and legislation where they choose to operate their drone. The second is a bit more nuanced in that there has to be common courtesy as to where, when, and how we operate our drones. The less courtesy we give, the stricter the regulations will eventually be.“

And don’t think that drones are or will be limited to consumer use. While relaxing in the park and having someone send their drone to hover ten inches from your face is pretty annoying, more serious drones for enterprise use are dramatically on the rise.

A year ago, Skydio announced that they had raised an additional $100M financing round to continue what many fees is controversial work with governments and private enterprise. More simply put, some fear that this rockstar ex-MIT and GoogleX team are making mass surveillance drones and less than savory deals.

Given that one of their competitors, DJI, owns nearly 80% of the commercial drone market, multiple aggressive startups flush with cash are seeking to shake loose some of that market share as they grow their market cap.

As drones become more prevalent in our daily lives, our initial pushback against them may be dulled by their ubiquity. Like any other new technology, even one that can be pretty scary when we consider all of its dimensions, time usually gets us comfortable with things we expect would always stretch our comfort zone.

Aron Solomon is the head of digital strategy for Esquire Digital and has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania. Since earning his law degree, Solomon has spent the last two decades advising law firms and attorneys. He founded LegalX, the world’s first legal technology accelerator and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the world’s leading legal innovators. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Artificial Intelligence

Int’l Ethical Framework for Auto Drones Needed Before Widescale Implementation

Observers say the risks inherent in letting autonomous drones roam requires an ethical framework.

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Timothy Clement-Jones was a member of the U.K. Parliament's committee on artificial intelligence

July 19, 2021 — Autonomous drones could potentially serve as a replacement for military dogs in future warfare, said GeoTech Center Director David Bray during a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council last month, but ethical concerns have observers clamoring for a framework for their use.

Military dogs, trained to assist soldiers on the battlefield, are currently a great asset to the military. AI-enabled autonomous systems, such as drones, are developing capabilities that would allow them to assist in the same way — for example, inspecting inaccessible areas and detecting fires and leaks early to minimize the chance of on-the-job injuries.

However, concerns have been raised about the ability to impact human lives, including the recent issue of an autonomous drone possibly hunting down humans in asymmetric warfare and anti-terrorist operations.

As artificial intelligence continues to develop at a rapid rate, society must determine what, if any, limitations should be implemented on a global scale. “If nobody starts raising the questions now, then it’s something that will be a missed opportunity,” Bray said.

Sally Grant, vice president at Lucd AI, agreed with Bray’s concerns, pointing out the controversies surrounding the uncharted territory of autonomous drones. Panelists proposed the possibility of an international limitation agreement with regards to AI-enabled autonomous systems that can exercise lethal force.

Timothy Clement-Jones, who was a member of the U.K. Parliament’s committee on artificial intelligence, called for international ethical guidelines, saying, “I want to see a development of an ethical risk-based approach to AI development and application.”

Many panelists emphasized the immense risk involve if this technology gets in the wrong hands. Panelists provided examples stretching from terrorist groups to the paparazzi, and the power they could possess with that much access.

Training is vital, Grant said, and soldiers need to feel comfortable with this machinery while not becoming over-reliant. The idea of implementing AI-enabled autonomous systems into missions, including during national disasters, is that soldiers can use it as guidance to make the most informed decisions.

“AI needs to be our servant not our master,” Clement agreed, emphasizing that soldiers can use it as a tool to help them and not as guidance to follow. He compared AI technology with the use of phone navigation, pointing to the importance of keeping a map in the glove compartment in case the technology fails.

The panelists emphasized the importance of remaining transparent and developing an international agreement with an ethical risk-based approach to AI development and application in these technologies, especially if they might enter the battlefield as a reliable companion someday.

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