Perhaps the clearest example of the much-discussed challenge of innovation came in the closing session of the National Governors Association (NGA) in Providence. The outgoing chair, Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, attempted to pass the gavel to incoming governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada. They had arranged for a drone to buzz in from offstage and drop it on two-foot by two-foot table. What was supposed to be a clever high-tech gag went pear shaped as the drone wavered and its payload hit the edge and bounced to the floor.
“It was close,” said McAuliffe, retrieving it, “Pretty good.”
I had gotten to the ballroom an hour early and seen the crew nail it in rehearsal. But what they hadn’t practiced was having live governors stand next to the target table, and my guess is that the sight picture looked very different to the drone operator when there were human heads close to the whirring quadcopter blades, leading to the last minute hesitation.
The fly in the ointment of innovation: Humans.
From Thursday through Saturday of last week, more than 30 US governors and delegations from Mexico and Canada — and 1,500 staff members, experts, sponsors, “corporate fellows,” and media — came together for the NGA’s 109th annual summer meeting at the Providence Convention Center to chew through a packed agenda of discussions, talks, panels, and plenaries. Innovation was a recurrent theme.
The NGA occupied the whole fifth floor of the convention center, with half a dozen vendor booths set up at each end, and the plenary sessions taking place in the main ballroom. The atmosphere was a mix of trade show, convention, and conference. The whole first day, Thursday, was devoted to “business” meetings of governors and staff which were closed to the press. On Friday, the entrances sprouted magnetometers, Secret Service teams, and bomb-sniffing dogs for the keynote speakers.
This was reportedly the largest such gathering, and the first time that a sitting head of state — Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau — addressed the body. Vice President Mike Pence also stopped by Friday to flog the Senate’s latest attempt at a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which he, somewhat perversely, positioned as an opportunity to “usher in a new era of state-based innovation.” Promising to “expand state freedom and flexibility” to experiment with local healthcare solutions, Pence pitched the bill’s per-capita-caps and block grants as mechanisms to “reform” a system which he asserted “put too many able-bodied adults on Medicaid.”
Healthcare is a prime example of an innovation crisis. While the knee in the curve arguably dates to the late 1800s with the invention of anesthesia and antiseptic technique, the acceleration in the past 50 years has been exponential, as has, not entirely coincidentally, been the cost of delivering these new miracles to a population living 20 years longer than their 1960s counterparts. Pence’s attack on the ACA reflects the underlying tension of a 21st-century healthcare technology landscape yoked to a midcentury modern insurance and payment model. (The only rational way forward is single payer, but there are those pesky human hurdles to overcome…)
An aside: it wasn’t until just as Pence was due to speak that the alt-right and their bots infected the conference’s #WeTheStates Twitter hashtag. Then they descended like flies.
The contrast between the Pence and the following speaker, Trudeau, could not have been greater. Pence had kicked off his speech with a note of ostentatious humility, quoting Samuel 7:18 “Who am I, Oh Lord, and who is my family that you brought me this far.”
Trudeau went for a slightly more modern textual reference, invoking Wallace Stevens, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.” It’s a deceptively simple line from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” a 630-line poem that explores how humans make meaning couched in gnomic, indeterminate language that resists easy analysis. I feel confident in opining that Pence — or, it goes without saying, the sitting US chief executive — would be unable to wrangle any sense from a text that has challenged the likes of Harold Bloom.
And yet, here is a Canadian Prime Minister, opening a talk whose manifest content is the nature of bilateral trade with a quote suggesting pointedly latent content (the problems of language, the duality of reality and its representation in thought.) Did Trudeau mean to pack all that in, or was it just a throwaway nod to a poet from nearby Hartford? What matters most, I would argue, is that Trudeau understands the possibilities for, and is capable of, deploying such a complex text. I remember when we had a President who could do that.
Trudeau also walked a fine line on trade. While pitching the importance of “thin borders” and relationships directly with US states, he took pains to acknowledge the issues with NAFTA in light of its impending renegotiation. The benefits of free trade, he noted, are not necessarily “fairly distributed among citizens.”
The top-of-the-ticket speakers were not the only ones to deliver challenging messages on innovation.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, in a Friday morning session with McAuliffe and Sandoval, moderated by former ProJo reporter Ed Fitzpatrick, talked about efforts to implement LEAN principles and the drive toward renewable energy, whose centerpiece is the Block Island wind farm.
In response to a question from this reporter about making innovation happen at the state level, Raimondo noted the role of Rhode Island’s new chief innovation officer, but stressed that it takes broader involvement to make change happen. “Innovation has to become the way you do your job,” said Raimondo. “It can’t be compartmentalized into one office. While I think it’s important to have a leader in that effort, and someone who gets everybody together and shares ideas, the only way this works is if everybody spends a certain percent of their time working on innovation-based projects, and so that’s what we’ve done.”
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on hand to demo the work of his new nonprofit, USA Facts which attempts to produce a “10-K for government” that collects federal and state level data to inform policy conversations. In a plenary session, Ballmer described the work of collecting information — all “neutral and unbiased” data sourced from government agencies — and putting it together in a user-friendly web format. His hope is that it can be a springboard for reasoned debate rather than partisan wrangling. Said Ballmer, “You don’t really know how far apart you are without numbers to inform the discussion.”
In response to a question from this reporter about the developing literature in cognitive science questioning the efficacy of changing opinion with facts, Ballmer defended his optimism pointing to a poll his organization commissioned showing that 88 percent of respondents wanted facts, not anecdotes. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that cognitive science is wrong,” said Ballmer, but “people believe they’re open minded about the facts. And even if they’re not as open minded about the facts as they tell us in the poll, people believe that’s a sign of progress and moving forward.”
There was an “Innovation Pavilion Stage” at the west end of the fifth floor, and Saturday morning featured a series of lightning talks. I was in the middle of a spinach-and-cheese mini-quiche from the free breakfast buffet and frankly not paying much attention when I realized I was hearing a talk about incarceration. An unexpected, but highly relevant topic. I checked the program and realized this was not one of the trade show vendors, but Sal Monteiro, the director of training at Providence’s Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. He talked about the work the group does to save lives through interventions on the street, and how that can also save money for the state. In a powerful argument about where to focus resources, Monteiro gestured at the vendor booths, “I see computers and torpedoes,” he said, “You should invest in the technology, but also invest…in us as human beings.”
Valecia Maclin, Director of Cybersecurity and Special Missions at Raytheon, in another Innovation Stage talk, laid out a framework for cybersecurity risk management (plan, share information, deploy automation, inspire behavior). While she discussed the tools that Raytheon has on offer — as did Integrated Defense Systems President Wes Kremer in a plenary on Friday — she also stressed the human side of the equation. “There will be one million jobs in cybersecurity by 2020,” said Maclin, and yet, “Only one quarter of the population has ever met a cybersecurity expert, and only one third of students say that a teacher has talked with them” about the profession.
Responding to threats in the coming Internet of Things will require not just innovative tools, Maclin told reporters afterwards, but a heightened level of awareness from people. “The beauty of the human is that we can evolve,” she said, stressing the need to inspire the next generation of computer professionals. Maclin praised the Computer Science For Rhode Island (CS4RI) program that teaches coding in every public school. “Those programs are incredibly critical,” she said, and described her own exposure to technology growing up as a woman and person of color. “The opportunity to have a tangible representation — we have to do that,” she said. “We have to inspire a generation that’s already interconnected to become a part of the solution to securing their future.”
Praise for CS4RI also came from Reshma Saujani, the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, an initiative that has taught 40,000 girls to program through immersion and afterschool clubs in all 50 states. The organization held a live hackathon all day Friday with several dozen girls from around the country who worked in teams coding solutions. They worked on the terrace leading to the fifth floor — prime real estate that literally forced all attendees to pay attention, anbd PM Trudeau stopped on his way into the event and talked with them for almost half an hour.
Saujani told this reporter that programs like CS4RI are “beyond important,” because “getting states involved, and getting computer science in every classroom is the only way to reach thousands of young girls.” She talked about the upcoming Girls Who Code 13-book series debuting in August, which will deliver curriculum in a graphic novel format. “It’s like ‘Babysitting Club’ meets ‘Coders,’” she said. “We need to focus on how to change culture,” said Soujani. Since girls don’t “see themselves as computer scientists. We need representation. Literary representation matters.”
Saujani returned to this theme in her main stage talk to all the governors on Saturday. “When we turn on the television or open up a magazine, the image we see of a computer programmer is a dude in a hoodie sitting in a basement somewhere, drinking a Red Bull, staring a screen, right? And little girls look at him and they say, I don’t just not want to be him, I don’t even want to be friends with him. Culture is having a huge effect on who our girls think they can be when they grow up.”
“I’m on the stage today to talk truth to power,” she continued. “Fewer than one out of five students in computer science classes are girls. That’s not good enough for me, and it shouldn’t be good enough for you. As you continue to lead on this issue of bringing computer science to every classroom, please track the data. Don’t ever take your eyes off gender.”
The closing session — after the drone hiccup and a promotional video about New Mexico, the site of next year’s summer meeting — featured the star attraction, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, who sat down for a one-hour Q&A with the governors moderated by Sandoval. Musk was clearly there to push their thinking, and did not disappoint, talking about making human life multi-planetary, accelerating sustainable energy, producing autonomous vehicles, and urging government regulation of artificial intelligence. The video is worth watching in its entirety (Musk Q&A begins about 27 minutes in).
Sandoval asked Musk how he would judge the success of Tesla. “The overall objective of Tesla,” Musk said, “Is what set of coordinated actions can we take to accelerate the advent of sustainable production and consumption of energy…if we could accelerate by ten years, that would be a great success.”
Asked for a look into the future, Musk predicted “exponential” acceleration of innovation. “In ten years, more than half of vehicle production is electric in the United States. China’s probably going to be ahead of that. China’s environmental policies are way ahead of the US.”
“In ten years, almost all cars produced will be autonomous,” he predicted, but he added that new vehicle production is only 5 percent the size of the vehicle fleet, so while the technical advances may come quickly, “It will take another five to ten years before the majority of the fleet becomes EV or autonomous.” Looking out 20 years? “Things are overwhelmingly electric and autonomous. There will not be a steering wheel. It will be like having a horse.” The idea of cars with steering wheels being equivalent to horses prompted some nervous laughter from the governors.
But that was nothing compared to what was to come when Sandoval asked if robots would take everybody’s jobs. Musk immediately went to a very dark vision of the risks of artificial intelligence.
“Until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” said Musk. “AI is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation. Because by the time we’re reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.”
That prediction brought a bit of a hush to the room.
The current process — where regulation only happens over the course of years, following some negative impacts, and over the objections of target companies — Musk cautioned would be insufficient. “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”
And even if we survive first contact with our artificially intelligent progeny, there’s no guarantee of smooth sailing. “There will certainly be a lot of job disruption,” Musk predicted. “Robots will be able to do everything better than us. I mean, all of us. Um. Yeah. I’m not sure exactly what to do about this.”
More nervous laughter. Maybe some governors were wondering if they too might be included in that sweeping “all of us.”
And, perhaps, some people were thinking that a robot drone would have hit the table.