Gary Shapiro is the longtime CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, and he has played a lot of roles over the years in that job.

Shapiro presides over CES 2020, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas this week. He plays the seer, as the author of a couple of best-selling books about the future of technology. He’s a policy wonk who promotes the consumer electronics industry’s views in Washington, D.C., and he’s a punching bag sometimes, like when he chose to do a fireside chat with Ivanka Trump, daughter of president Trump and a senior adviser to the White House.

At the CES Unveiled opening party, I spoke with Shapiro about this year’s CES, which is expected to draw more than 175,000 attendees to view 2.9 million square feet of exhibit space with products from 4,500 exhibitors.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

VB Transform 2020 Online - July 15-17. Join leading AI executives: Register for the free livestream.

VentureBeat: You’ve heard a lot of reaction about the Ivanka choice. Were you expecting that?

Gary Shapiro: This year we’ll have about 200 policymakers from around the world — cabinet members, ministers, top people. You know better than anyone. For many years we’ve focused on policy, and we’ll continue to focus on policy. Last year, on the keynote stage, IBM’s Ginni Rometty announced a partnership with us on apprenticeships. CTA has an apprenticeship program. We have 40 companies already in various stages.

Apprenticeships is one piece of a much bigger project. We’ve surveyed our industry. Ninety percent of these companies are seeking skilled workers. That’s one aspect. We need a pipeline. We’ve gone after apprenticeships. We have our whole veterans program. We’ve supported Boys and Girls’ Clubs. We’re doing all sorts of things to get that pipeline going.

The other side of it, which certainly Ivanka Trump pointed out to me — we’re creating all of this technology. Artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotics. People are concerned about how that will affect their jobs. What are we doing about that? It’s a good point. We had a book last year, and it didn’t talk about that at all. Now we have a new chapter that’s added for the paperback version, and we talk about the fact that we have to focus on all these different pipelines. Also, we have an obligation to try to make sure, in the United States at least, that people are comfortable with the fact that these technologies are not only good, but there will be jobs around them.

Then there’s the third aspect. It’s a national competitiveness issue. The White House has been focusing on this increasingly. Tim Cook himself, from Apple, has been giving his time and going to meetings. Marc Benioff has been engaged, Ginni Rometty at IBM, many other leaders in the tech industry, they’ve engaged on this issue as CEOs. To me it’s very natural that the industry association representing a lot of those companies would also have a public policy discussion to engage people.

This isn’t only about advancing and solving age-old problems through technology. It’s also about jobs and the economy. It’s also, in a bigger picture, about our competitiveness as a country, and where we’re going to be against other countries, especially China, as we go forward. We value liberty. We value freedom of religion, accessing the internet, speaking our mind, petitioning our government, having opinions. We do all these things as Americans because that’s who we are. It’s something we value and we want our kids and grandkids to have. It’s very important that, as a country, we focus on these issues.

The fact that there’s this highlight here at CES on the future of work — by the way, we have a bunch of sessions, and last year we did the same thing. We had a whole bunch of sessions on the future of work. We created a job, the vice president of American jobs, two years ago. That’s an increasing focus of ours. The fact that we’re getting more attention on it is a good thing.

Michael Phelps appeared at Panasonic's CES press event.

Above: Michael Phelps appeared at Panasonic’s CES press event.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VentureBeat: I feel like there was a bit of an overreaction. People saw it as an either-or sort of thing. If you have her, you can’t have someone else.

Shapiro: Michael Bloomberg was a keynote speaker years ago. Vice President Gore, through video, was on our keynote stage. The funny thing about what we do with our sessions — we have advocates on both sides, whether or not they agree. We always present the other side. The irony is that on this issue, there is no other side. I was at the Internet Association dinner a few months ago. Ivanka Trump was honored by the Internet Association. The other person honored that night, and it was all very cordial, was Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Was that a big deal in Washington? Everyone thought it was natural. They both deserved to be honored.

To me, there’s no debate to be had about the fact that training Americans for jobs in the future is an important national priority. We have to look at apprenticeships. We have to look at community colleges and start getting people respect and status. This is something President Obama has talked about as well. We’re sending people to college and giving them these degrees that may not have marketable skills. That’s a discussion we have to have. We have to invest in every American and give everyone an opportunity and a chance. That’s the discussion that’s occurring.

VentureBeat: I also see a lot of attention on privacy. I talked to those guys at IoTeX over there. They’re doing a blockchain and encrypted security project. It’s interesting to see that happening alongside things like the California law around privacy.

Shapiro: Certainly privacy is an issue that’s increasingly important every year. We’re going to be having that debate for a long time, because there’s a tradeoff between access to data — you consider the Chinese. I was talking to a surgeon recently. He said, “We thought we were really big here because we were working with 40,000 patient records. Our Chinese counterparts are using 800,000 patient records, and they don’t have to ask permission.” It’s unbelievable.

But it’s just a microcosm. The truth is that data is the fuel for AI. Here, in the western world, we value privacy. We have a balancing act. We’re competing with a country that doesn’t have to worry about that same balance. That’s why we need everyone we can to go into these areas. China is producing a million STEM graduates a year. We’re not even close to that. Their population is bigger. But there’s a bipartisan consensus that we need a bigger national effort to be competitive in the future.

VentureBeat: What else is exciting to you about new technologies this year?

Shapiro: It’s exciting to enter a new decade. 5G and AI and self-driving and health care technology, all these things are getting more real every day. They were concepts a few years ago, then there were some prototypes, and now there are applications and products being sold. In areas like health care technology there’s tremendous growth. AI is pervasive throughout the show. The smart home, we have a tremendous number of products, a lot of growth in that area.

VentureBeat: It’s funny to see that AI is normal, but flying cars are the unreal thing at the show.

Shapiro: Well, it has to start somewhere. I remember 10 or 15 years ago when we first had drones flying around, here in this room. Now drones are so common. I’m not going to say it’s not newsworthy, because it is, but now they’re here. So you have to start somewhere.

VentureBeat: As far as what the show as accomplished, what do you think about that?

Shapiro: My job is to make sure that innovation can flourish. The show is reflective of the fact that to succeed as a business today, you have to get together with other businesses in other industries to cut deals, cross-licensing, cross-marketing, things like that. No one company can do it alone. The show is getting people from all over the world focused on innovation together in one place, at the CXO level. It’s inspiring people to do that. We also have people like you getting this out to the public so they understand what’s going on.

It’s a better future. We’ll be living longer. We’ll be safer. We’ll be healthier. We’ll have more customized education. We’ll have better transportation and communication. Look at the focus on food. We’re focusing on global warming here with solutions now. That’s really important.

Ivanka Trump

Above: Ivanka Trump

Image Credit: AP/Shutterstock

VentureBeat: We’re going to have to have policy on flying car traffic.

Shapiro: We figured out how to do it with drones. They avoid each other. My son was showing me how that works with drones flying in our basement. It’s pretty cool.

VentureBeat: I feel like people have forgotten about tariffs. Is that still a conversation?

Shapiro: I’ve gotten a lot of questions about tariffs. It was a very difficult year, year and a half, because of the uncertainty. We were a tweet away from getting hurt. Generally, the last set of tariffs that were going to go into effect hit a lot of our products, but they didn’t go into effect. The deal was cut. Some of our products are still covered, and they went down a bit. But if you look at us compared to apparel, toys, textiles, clothing, we’ve done OK.

I think President Trump recognized the value of innovation and the importance of what we produce for consumers. We’re never quite out of the woods, but now we’ve adjusted. We’re out of the holiday season. There’s a lot of optimism.

The other thing that’s happened, all in the same week, is the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that’s on its way to completion. It got through the House. We were the only group I’m aware of that ran a major media campaign before it went through. We’re pretty pleased with that.