How Congress can step up on innovative technology issues

How Congress can step up on innovative technology issues
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We live in an age of transformational technological innovation that many refer to as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Like other revolutions, if we do not take care to direct it thoughtfully, this one indeed runs the risk of overwhelming us. Technologies like artificial intelligence and synthetic biology hold great promise to make humanity more prosperous and healthier, but they can also potentially be used to cause great harm. The public good must be the moral center of this modern revolution.

As the epicenter of emerging technology research, the United States must lead the way, shaping new technologies in accordance with our values. This is more important than ever due to the rise of China as an economic competitor with a different set of values. Unfortunately, Congress, as well as some companies, have not shown that they are ready to reckon with the promise or peril of emerging technologies. In the infamous Facebook hearings, members of Congress were unfamiliar with even the most basic facets of social media, which is no longer an emerging technology.

Without fundamental changes, can we really expect Congress to tackle technologies that shape society, such as artificial intelligence, genome editing, and autonomous vehicles, to say nothing of the innovations yet to be invented? While it is easy to rag on Congress for its dysfunction, it is more useful to consider why Congress is unprepared and what can be done to bolster its capacity to deal with emerging technology issues.

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For nearly a year, our team at the Harvard Technology and Public Purpose Project has investigated this question and what can be done about it. To understand the root causes of this problem, we spoke to dozens of people who have worked on Capitol Hill, including former members of Congress, current and former staffers, and more. We also wanted to hear from experts who provide information to Congress, including academics, think tank staffers, lobbyists, and legislative support agency staffers at the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office.

In those conversations it became clear that, despite being one of the most advised bodies in the world, there is a clear gap between what Congress could benefit from and the expert resources it has available. Members of Congress are used to voting on an wide variety of issues and absorbing as much relevant information as their jobs permit. As one staffer put it, “There is no silver bullet. It is a funding issue. It is an expertise issue. It is an institutional issue in terms of time and ability to focus on the issue.” Our analysis led us to four actions that we believe would improve the capacity of Congress to reckon with emerging technology issues.

First, Congress should establish a bipartisan and bicameral support body focused on offering nonpartisan technical advice to Congress. I am on the record arguing that the Office of Technology Assessment, one such body that was defunded in the 1990s, should be resurrected, something that Congress is actively considering. A bipartisan group of senators and representatives has also released the Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act, which seeks to make the Office of Technology Assessment more responsive to policymaker needs.

Second, Congress needs more scientists and technologists working on committees and in member offices. To get there, Congress should target both undergraduate students pursuing science degrees and working professionals, creating pathways for each to work on Capitol Hill at levels commensurate with their experience. Universities, think tanks, and foundations can help Congress create these pathways and, separately, train scientists and technologists on how to be effective policy advisers.

Third, Congress must give itself the resources to hire enough people with the right skill sets. In the years since I was recruited to provide technical analysis for the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress has allowed its support agencies and committees to atrophy. Members of Congress are then forced to do more with less and have trouble keeping up.

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Fourth, as they are crafting reports for Congress, technologists and scientists should think less like scientists and more like policymakers under deadline by offering concise and actionable inputs. Above all, they should analyze all possible alternatives, as members of Congress are the ones who should make key decisions among the informed options.

To be sure, these solutions are not complicated or even expensive. They also are not surprising, but as with so many things, politics gets in the way of common sense solutions. Members of Congress of both parties do not want to vote to increase their budgets, making it difficult to hire science and technology experts. They worry that a body much like the Office of Technology Assessment will be unnecessary or, worse, politicized.

Despite this polarization, many policymakers, like those on the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, have shown that a bipartisan effort to improve their science and technology capacity is possible. That committee has unanimously recommended “reestablishing and restructuring an improved Office of Technology Assessment,” among dozens of additional changes. Bipartisan progress is indeed possible.

The stakes are clear. Now is the time for a bipartisan and bicameral group of legislators to come together and build a 21st century Congress more capable of dealing with emerging technologies. It is time to get ahead of the dilemmas of innovation while keeping its many benefits to society.

Ash Carter served as United States secretary of defense under President Obama. He is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of the Technology and Public Purpose Project. He is also an innovation fellow and a member with the board of trustees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.