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Innovation Files

Author: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

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Explore the intersection of technology, innovation, and public policy with the world’s leading think tank on these issues. Innovation Files serves up expert interviews, fascinating insights, and head-turning commentary on how to accelerate innovation, promote economic growth, and serve the public good. Expect to hear some unconventional wisdom.
35 Episodes
When it comes to national innovation ecosystems, Norway has been a standout performer. After discovering oil, it vaulted from being one of Europe’s poorest countries in the 1950s to become a high-wage, high-cost nation with strengths in B2B products, heavy industry, shipping, and shipbuilding. Now it is pivoting toward renewable energy—including offshore wind and electric vehicle technologies—while broadening and deepening its national innovation ecosystem to encourage new firms in a range of industries to scale up and compete globally. Rob and Jackie discuss the secrets of Norway’s success with Hege Barnes, regional director for the Americas at Innovation Norway.Mentioned:World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), also known as the Brundtland Report.Colin Cunliff, “Omission Innovation: The Missing Element in Most Countries’ Response to Climate Change” (ITIF, December 2018).Stephen Ezell, Frank Spring, and Katarzyna Bitka, “The Global Flourishing of National Innovation Foundations” (ITIF, April 2015).
There is a deep disconnect between the U.S. education system and the workplace. How can policymakers bridge the gap and create clear pathways to good jobs? How do technical schools, community colleges, employers, governments, and universities fit together as pieces of the workforce education puzzle—and how can new education technologies help deliver the training workers need? Rob and Jackie discuss the challenges, opportunities, and policy solutions with Professor Sanjay Sarma and Bill Bonvillian of MIT, authors of the new book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap.Mentioned:William B. Bonvillian and Sanjay E. Sarma, Workforce Education: A New Roadmap (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, February 2021).Joe Kennedy, Daniel Castro, Robert D. Atkinson, “Why It’s Time to Disrupt Higher Education by Separating Learning From Credentialing” (ITIF, August 2016).Related:Robert D. Atkinson, “How to Reform Worker-Training and Adjustment Policies for an Era of Technological Change” (ITIF, February 2018).
The “techlash” is a story of extreme pendulum swings—from an era in which splashy product launches earned gushing media reviews to a relentless crisis narrative in which the tech industry is viewed with harsh suspicion. How has this happened? Is it a case of pack journalism run amok, or have tech companies contributed to the narrative with predictable formulas for handling a PR crisis? Rob and Jackie discuss all this with Nirit Weiss-Blatt, a former research fellow at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and author of the new book The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications.Mentioned:Nirit Weiss-Blatt, The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications (UK: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2021). Patrick Grother, Mei Ngan, and Kayee Hanaoka, Face Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) Part 3: Demographic Effects, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Interagency Report 8280, December 2019. Related:Robert D. Atkinson, et al., “A Policymaker’s Guide to the ‘Techlash’—What It Is and Why It’s a Threat to Growth and Progress” (ITIF, October 2019).Doug Allen and Daniel Castro, “Why So Sad? A Look at the Change in Tone of Technology Reporting From 1986 to 2013” (ITIF, February 2017).Michael McLaughlin and Daniel Castro, “The Critics Were Wrong: Data Shows the Best Facial Recognition Algorithms Are Neither Racist Nor Sexist” (ITIF, January 2020). 
There is an inordinate amount of hype and fear around artificial intelligence these days, as a chorus of scholars, luminaries, media, and politicians nervously project that it could soon take our jobs and subjugate or even kills us off. Others are just as fanciful in hoping it is on the verge of solving all our problems. But the truth is AI isn’t nearly as advanced as most people imagine. What is the practical reality of AI today, and how should government approach AI policy to maximize its potential? To parse the hype, the hope, and the path forward for AI, Rob and Jackie sat down recently with Pedro Domingos, emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Washington and author of The Master Algorithm.Mentioned:Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (Basic Books, 2015).Robert D. Atkinson, “The 2015 ITIF Luddite Award Nominees: The Worst of the Year’s Worst Innovation Killers” (ITIF, December 2015).Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1990).Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osbourne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” (University of Oxford, September 17, 2013).Michael McLaughlin and Daniel Castro, “The Critics Were Wrong: NIST Data Shows the Best Facial Recognition Algorithms Are Neither Racist Nor Sexist” (ITIF, January 2020).“The Case for Killer Robots,” ITIF Innovation Files podcast with Robert Marks, August 10, 2020.
In the final weeks of the Trump administration, Rob and Jackie sat down with Dan Wang, a technology analyst and China expert at Gavekal Dragonomics Research, to discuss the successes and failures of Chinese industrial policy and to evaluate the impact of U.S. export restrictions. In the previous four years, there weren’t many Chinese tech companies that the Trump administration didn’t sanction or at least threaten. What did that achieve in the technological race with China? What was the impact on the American brand writ large? And what should the Biden administration do next?Mentioned:Dan Wang, “New U.S. Restrictions Will Help Make China Great Again” (Bloomberg Opinion, December 18, 2020).Dan Wang’s website, Related:Stephen Ezell and Caleb Foote, “How Stringent Export Controls on Emerging Technologies Would Harm the U.S. Economy” (ITIF, May 2019). 
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is at the center of a contentious, high-stakes debate about free speech, intermediary liability, and the future of the Internet. Why is a 1996 law so important today? Why have Presidents Biden and Trump both said they want to repeal it? Was it to blame when Twitter and Facebook banned Trump from their platforms, or was it the reason they didn’t ban him sooner? Rob and Jackie discuss the issue with ITIF policy analysts Ellysse Dick and Ashley Johnson, co-hosts of the new podcast series Ellysse and Ashley Break the Internet, which will start dropping on all major distribution platforms on February 24.Related:Ellysse and Ashley Break the Internet: The Ins and Outs of the Section 230 Debate (ITIF podcast series, 2021).
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science devoted to creating computer systems that perform tasks characteristic of human intelligence, such as learning and decision-making. AI overlaps with other areas of study, including robotics, natural language processing, and computer vision. Understanding what AI can do—and perhaps more importantly what it cannot—is critical for understanding the substantial benefits AI can bring to many sectors of the economy and society. Rob and Jackie talk to veteran AI researcher, statistician, and investor Steve Shwartz about the mechanics of AI and how to spur further development and adoption of the technology.Mentioned:Steven Shwartz, Evil Robots, Killer Computers, and Other Myths: The Truth About AI and the Future of Humanity (Fast Company Press, February 2021).Related:“What Is Artificial Intelligence?” (ITIF Technology Explainer, September 2018). Steven Shwartz, “Artificial Intelligence 101,” AI Perspectives, online book.
Venture capital firms have reined in their funding for resource-intensive start-ups trying to commercialize new technologies in fields such as clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and robotics. Today, for a fraction of the costs involved in those enterprises, you can bring innovations to market in months—and be relatively capital efficient—thanks partly to the transition to cloud computing. Rob and Jackie discuss what’s needed to maintain a robust VC ecosystem in the United States with veteran angel investor Dan Scheinman. Mentioned:“The COVID-19 ‘Reallocation Shock,’ With Nick Bloom,” ITIF Innovation Files podcast, August 17, 2020. Adams Nager, et al., “The Demographics of Innovation in the United States” (ITIF, February 2016). Related:Robert D. Atkinson, Mark Muro, and Jacob Whiton, “The Case for Growth Centers: How to Spread Tech Innovation Across America” (ITIF and Brookings, December 9, 2019). “The Real History of Silicon Valley and the Lessons It Holds for Innovation Policy Today, With Margaret O’Mara” ITIF Innovation Files podcast, June 8, 2020. Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies” (ITIF, September 2015).
Crops and foods improved through biotechnology, popularly known as “GMOs” (for “genetically modified organisms”) remain at the center of a maelstrom of conflicting claims and assertions. It is difficult for a layperson to make sense of it all, and this becomes even more important when the layperson is a government official in a position to make or influence policy decisions. Rob and Jackie talk about the unfounded fears surrounding GMOs with L. Val Giddings, senior fellow at ITIF and leading expert on policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine.MentionedNancy Marie Brown, Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods (Joseph Henry Press, 2004). Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).Val Giddings, “A Policymaker's Guide to the GMO Controversies” (ITIF, February 2015). 
The United States has no national, coordinated innovation policy system. In fact, its overall innovation system has been deteriorating. The country’s economic future and national security will depend on rising to the challenge of addressing this problem. Rob and Jackie discuss how policymakers can be responsible stewards of innovation with John Kao, a leading thinker on innovation.Mentioned:John Kao, Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity (Harper Business, 1997). John Kao, Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back (Free Press, 2007). Related:Robert D. Atkinson, “Understanding the U.S. National Innovation System, 2020” (ITIF, November 2020). 
Despite the growing use of computers and software in every facet of our economy, not until recently has computer science education begun to gain traction in American school systems. The current focus on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in U.S. schools has disregarded differences within STEM fields. Indeed, the most important STEM field for a modern economy is not only one that is not represented by its own initial in the acronym “STEM,” but also the field that the fewest high school students study and the one with the most room for improvement, by far: computer science. Rob and Jackie discuss the state of computer science education in the United States and abroad—and why policymakers need to provide support—with Pat Yongpradit, chief academic officer for State of Computer Science Education: Illuminating Disparities ( Advocacy Coalition, Computer Science Teachers Association, and Expanding Computing Education Pathways, October 2020).Adams Nager and Robert D. Atkinson, “The Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education” (ITIF, May 2016). Robert D. Atkinson and Merrilea Mayo, “Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy: Fresh Approaches to STEM Education” (ITIF, December 2010). Computer Science for All Act of 2019, H.R.1485, 116th Congress. (2019) Robert D. Atkinson and Caleb Foote, “The 2020 State New Economy Index” (ITIF, October 2020).
It has become abundantly clear that the United States faces a robust economic and military competitor in China. In at least one respect, this is a more daunting challenge than America faced in the Cold War, because while the former Soviet Union had a strong military, it struggled with a weak economy. In those days, the United States also could rely on specialized defense contractors to provide most of the technologies that the Defense Department needed to maintain military superiority, but that’s no longer true. Now, many of the capabilities the country needs for its defense reside in the private sector. It is, therefore, critical to establish better links between the commercial sector and the military.Enter the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a Defense Department entity that was launched in 2015 to work more closely with the private sector. Rob and Jackie talk to Michael Brown, DIU’s director and a former CEO of Symantec, about remaining competitive by innovating in the defense sector. Mentioned: Stephen Ezell and Caleb Foote, “How Stringent Export Controls on Emerging Technologies Would Harm the U.S. Economy” (ITIF, May 2019). Nigel Cory and Robert D. Atkinson, “Why and How to Mount a Strong, Trilateral Response to China’s Innovation Mercantilism” (ITIF, January 2020). Robert D. Atkinson, “Emerging Defense Technologies Need Funding to Cross ‘The Valley of Death’,” RealClearDefense, February 15, 2020. 
There was a time, a decade or so ago, when many people thought it would be a long while before telecommunications networks could handle the migration from cable TV to over-the-top video streaming. Clearly a lot of Americans still do both, but it is striking how easy it has become to stream HD content on multiple screens at home at once. Rob talks about what happens behind the scenes to make this possible with Robert Rockell, vice president of network infrastructure at Comcast. Mentioned:Doug Brake, “Lessons From the Pandemic: Broadband Policy After COVID-19” (ITIF, July 2020). 
America leads in biopharmaceutical innovation and drug development, in large part due to effective life-science policies, including significant federal investment in basic research, robust intellectual property protections, effective technology transfer policies, investment incentives, and, importantly, drug pricing policies that enable companies to invest in high-risk drug development. Rob and Jackie talk about conducive environments for biopharmaceutical startups—and what the federal government can do to maintain U.S. competitiveness—with Josh Bilenker, CEO of Loxo Oncology at Lilly. Mentioned:Robert D. Atkinson, “Why Life-Sciences Innovation Is Politically “Purple”—and How Partisans Get It Wrong” (ITIF, February 2016). Stephen Ezell, “Ensuring U.S. Biopharmaceutical Competitiveness” (ITIF, July 2020). Related:Stephen Ezell, et al., “The Critical Role of Biopharmaceutical Startups in Driving Life Sciences Innovation,” ITIF webinar, July 16, 2020. Joe Kennedy, “The Link Between Drug Prices and Research on the Next Generation of Cures” (ITIF, September 2019). 
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the digital divide affecting millions of American families, especially those in low-income households. One of the most pernicious challenges is the divide between those with reliable access to computers and high-speed Internet in their homes and those without. Rob and Jackie discuss how local governments are on the front lines of addressing this challenge—and what the federal government can do to support healthy and inclusive digital ecosystems nationwide—with Joshua Edmonds, Director of Digital Inclusion for the City of Detroit, Michigan.MentionedRocket Mortgage, “Detroit’s Vision To Be Fully Connected: Here’s How The City Is Bridging Its Digital Divide,” Forbes advertorial, August 12, 2020. Connect 313, City of Detroit Digital Inclusion Program. RelatedRobert D. Atkinson, et al., “Digital Policy for Physical Distancing: 28 Stimulus Proposals That Will Pay Long-Term Dividends” (ITIF, April 2020). Robert D. Atkinson, Mark Muro, and Jacob Whiton, “The Case for Growth Centers: How to Spread Tech Innovation Across America” (ITIF, December 2019).
If Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” is to be believed, social media giants are surely responsible for the breakdown of our mental health, politics, and the economy. Generations of fear mongers have found reasons to believe new technologies—from books and bicycles to video games and email—are to blame for society’s ills. Rob and Jackie take a deep breath and discuss these predictable cycles of technology panic with Dr. Amy Orben, an expert in the history of technology panics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.Mentioned:Amy Orben, “The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, June 30, 2020.Amy Orben, “The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics,” video lecture, July 1, 2020. Related:Robert D. Atkinson, et al., “A Policymaker’s Guide to the “Techlash”—What It Is and Why It’s a Threat to Growth and Progress” (ITIF, October 2019).Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies” (ITIF, September 2015).
For too long, economic policy in the U.S. and Commonwealth nations has been guided by the “market efficiency” school. The result has been a widespread unwillingness to view government roles as critical to boosting innovation, growth, and competitiveness. It’s time for a new approach, which Lord David Sainsbury, author of Windows of Opportunity: How Nations Make Wealth, calls the “production capability” school. Under this school, the key question for economic policy is how well it enables enterprises to be more innovative and efficient. Rejecting the old doctrine in favor of the new is perhaps the most economic important task for our time. Rob and Jackie discuss this and the role for government in “picking winners” at the level of technologies and industries with Sainsbury.Mentioned:Lord David Sainsbury, Windows of Opportunity: How Nations Make Wealth (Profile Books, 2019).Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen J. Ezell, Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage (Yale University Press, 2014). 
Innovation is central to addressing global climate change while increasing economic growth, boosting international competitiveness, and strengthening energy security. Yet out of a $4 trillion budget, the United States only invests about $8 billion a year—or 0.04 percent of GDP—on clean energy research and development. Rob and Jackie discuss the urgent need for innovation in the clean energy sector—and “must pass” legislation that will accelerate progress—with Colin Cunliff, senior analyst at ITIF’s Clean Energy Innovation Program.Related:Colin Cunliff, “An Innovation Agenda for Deep Decarbonization: Bridging Gaps in the Federal Energy RD&D Portfolio” (ITIF, November 2018). Colin Cunliff, “Omission Innovation 2.0: Diagnosing the Global Clean Energy Innovation System” (ITIF, September 2019).Colin Cunliff, “An Innovation Agenda for Hard-to-Decarbonize Energy Sectors,” Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. XXXVI, no. 1, Fall 2019.Colin Cunliff, “Accelerating Energy Innovation in the 116th Congress: 10 Priorities for 2020” (ITIF, January 2020). 
A vocal group of alarmists worry that the pace of automation—particularly advances in robotics and artificial intelligence—will soon displace human labor to such an extent that many workers will be left with nothing to do. Never mind that generation after generation of technological innovations in industries ranging from textiles to steel to banking have always produced the opposite result: expanding the labor force, not wiping it out. Rob and Jackie delve into the evidence with Dr. James Bessen, executive director of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative (TPRI) at Boston University School of Law and author of Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth.Mentioned:James Bessen, Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth, (Yale University Press, 2015).James Bessen, et al., “Firm-Level Automation: Evidence from the Netherlands,” American Economic Association, AEA Papers and Proceedings, 110: 389-93.Robert D. Atkinson, “How G7 Nations Can Support and Prepare for the Next Technology Wave” (ITIF, March 2018).Technology & Policy Research Initiative (TPRI), Boston University School of Law.Related:ITIF’s @Work Series: “Employment in the Innovation Economy.”Robert D. Atkinson, “Robots, Automation, and Jobs: A Primer for Policymakers” (ITIF, May 2017).Robert D. Atkinson, “Robotics and the Future of Production and Work” (ITIF, October 2019).Robert D. Atkinson, “How to Reform Worker-Training and Adjustment Policies for an Era of Technological Change” (ITIF, February 2018). 
The U.S. Labor Department’s jobs report in February 2020 showed the country’s lowest rate of unemployment in 60 years. Two months later, it showed the highest rate of unemployment in 80 years. As The Wall Street Journal put it, “The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the fastest reallocation of labor since World War II, with companies and governments mobilizing an army of idled workers into new activities that are urgently needed.” Rob and Jackie discuss this “reallocation shock”—and which sectors will fare well or bare the brunt—with Nick Bloom, the William Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University, who also co-directs the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Mentioned:Jose Maria Barrero, Nick Bloom, and Steven J. Davis, “COVID-19 Is Also a Reallocation Shock,” University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute, working paper No. 2020-59. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Labor Review. Nicholas Bloom bio: William Eberle Professor of Economics, Stanford University.
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