After U.S. President Donald Trump was defeated in the recent election, President-elect Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris moved quickly from celebratory speeches to conversations about transition team members and key administration appointments.
Among the first names to emerge were people with tech backgrounds, like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who may be tapped to lead a tech industry panel in the White House. Since leaving Google, Schmidt has extended his services to the Pentagon, with a focus on machine learning. He has also led the Defense Innovation Board at the Pentagon and the National Security Commission on AI, which advised Congress that the U.S. needs to allocate more federal spending on AI to compete with China. NSCAI commissioners have also recommended steps like the creation of a government-run AI university and an increase in public-private partnerships in the semiconductor industry.
Schmidt and others have also raised questions about how close the administration will get with Big Tech companies that are increasingly viewed as the next Big Tobacco. Sentiment has shifted since 2009, when Biden first entered the White House, with industry experts warning that Big Tech’s concentration of power accelerates inequality.
A Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust lawsuit against Google and a congressional committee investigation both found that Big Tech companies enjoy an edge based on their accumulation of wealth, compute, machine learning, and masses of user data. The congressional report also concludes that Big Tech poses a threat to not only a competitive free market economy, but also democracy itself.
A study VentureBeat covered this week found that a compute divide is driving inequality in AI research, concentrating power, and giving elite universities and Big Tech companies an overwhelming advantage in the age of deep learning. The Biden campaign platform has committed to increases in federal research and development, with up to $300 billion for areas like AI and 5G. Such spending could help address systemic inequalities, as well as funding projects identified by groups like the NSCAI.
The Obama-Biden administration had developed a reputation for bringing innovation to the White House, with the appointment of a chief technology officer and chief data scientist and support for open access to data and bringing people with tech skills into public service. But after the last four years, that seems like another era.
Tim Wu, who testified as part of a congressional antitrust investigation into Congress, spoke to the Financial Times about this evolution. He told the reporter, “There has been a shift since the Obama administration, even among the people working in that administration, in the way they think about power in the tech world.”
The task of building civic tech that improves people’s lives remains largely undone, former deputy White House CTO Nicole Wong said. She assumed the role shortly after the Edward Snowden leaks went public in 2014 and was responsible for informing policy around privacy, innovation, and the internet. She was also part of legal teams at Google and Twitter. Wong is now serving on a Biden review team for the National Security Council, according to Reuters.
In a speech delivered about a year ago at Aspen Tech Policy Hub in San Francisco, she said the government uses outdated and inefficient tech. She also pointed to a pipeline problem that prevents people with tech skills from applying their talents to public service. Wong said she still believes the government can make technology that improves people’s lives and that doing so is important. Modernizing outdated government tech isn’t moonshot technology, she said, but public trust is at its lowest since the 1970s, a trend that started before Trump came into office. She said the decline in public trust is due in part to the government’s failure to deliver for the people.
“That’s why the non-glamorous work of modernizing a 70-year-old system matters just as much or more as perfecting a self-driving car or putting a person on Mars,” she said. “If we can order a gluten-free chocolate cake on our mobile phone while sitting in our living room and have it delivered in an hour, then we should be able to help a single mother get food stamps without having to take a day off work and fill out paperwork and stand in line at a limited-hours government office. We should be able to get our benefits to our veterans who fought for our country and the world that makes this tech possible.”
While Wong highlights ways the government could embrace technology to better serve the public, others are more concerned about limiting the reach of Big Tech. Some believe Biden plans to take on companies like Facebook when he assumes office. In that vein, Gene Kimmelman, who testified in favor of antitrust reform last year, will be part of the DOJ review team. But others in the field have concluded that Biden’s initial appointments signal the opposite.
If you’re interested in digging into some of the Biden team’s tech connections, Protocol made an interactive graph that visualizes links between acquaintances, family members, and current and former employers. And we will certainly learn more about the composition of Biden’s cabinet in the coming days and weeks, including who will head up federal agencies.
The Biden team will have to take a lot of factors into account, from urgent problems like the pandemic and the need for U.S. economic recovery to longer-term issues like the decline in public trust in government, concentration of power by Big Tech, undermining of democracy, and increase in surveillance and autocratic rule at a time of accelerating deployments of AI in business and government. While it’s too early to draw many conclusions, the involvement of people like chief of staff Ron Klain seems to indicate the team will at least believe in science. And the diverse coalition that delivered a Biden-Harris victory may inspire people to the kind of public service Wong hopes to see.
Thanks for reading,
Senior AI Staff Writer