Barack Obama ran on a science platform in 2008 that included creating the nation's first "chief technology officer," a suggestion that seemed vaguely like a good idea for a 21st-century administration (and one that rode to the White House with an unprecedented use of Internet innovation).
Exactly what such a previously undefined position — labeled, inevitably, with the murky term "tech czar" — would entail was less clear. Technology issues, after all, have fallen for several decades under the domain of the special advisor to the president for science and technology and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Aneesh Chopra, who was confirmed as the CTO in August, offered a glimpse today of the ideas he has been pushing inside government during the keynote address to the "Emerging Technologies/Emerging Economies" conference. The three-day event in Washington, designed to explore technology's role in solving global crises of energy, safe water, sustainable food and public health, is co-hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In short, Chopra said, perhaps deflating a few expectations in the room, the role of government in spurring technological innovation doesn't boil down to doling out grant money (although he reiterated Obama's pledge to double research and development spending over the next decade). More importantly, he wants to transform the way research by high-brow academics is adopted by entrepreneurs and turned into the kind of products and services - say, clean-water kits - that can be used by individual people.
"Nanotechnology is nothing more than a compilation of supply-side thinking," he said. "It is a set of enabling technologies, but to what end? What business problem, what societal challenge are we to apply them to?"
In answer to his own question, Chopra introduced a distinctly unscientific slogan he says he has been parroting inside government: "customer experience design."
It seems odd to think about a Third World mother without clean water or even a rural American with scant access to high-speed Internet as a "customer." Business lingo aside, Chopra wants to get at the idea that technology should be developed with the policy solution or commercial application in mind and that the one should turn into the other much faster.
Researchers should, in the process, listen to what the rural farmer or mother needs. And researchers and entrepreneurs should work together better to achieve that end.
"The rate at which that is done and the efficiency by which that is done today are unacceptable," he said.
Chopra, who previously served as Virginia's secretary of technology, is credited with fostering a few such innovations there, including the country's first open-source textbook.
"This is what I think the heart of the president's notion of technology innovation is: It's not about chest-thumping our prowess in having the latest pill that you swallow to take imaging of the body, and wow, isn't that amazing and America's great. Although that's exciting," he said. "It is about spurring a 21st-century conversation."
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