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WannaCry or WannaFixIt? Time for Action on Data Security

By Tim Sparapani

As we’ve seen from the latest round of WannaCry ransomware attacks, no one is safe from these viruses that have locked up the data of more than 200,000 users in at least 150 countries. When desperate consumers and businesses are hit, they often end up paying to get access to their data, which puts a tangible price on their hassle and inconvenience and makes it clear that safeguards that block attacks are essential.

But we should never waste a good crisis. This attack presents a chance to redouble efforts to stomp out botnets, which take over people’s computers and spread viruses.

There is no legislative silver bullet for cybersecurity. The U.S. Senate can take concrete action by swiftly passing the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which the House passed in May. Federal agencies can begin implementing the president’s executive order on cybersecurity. And, we should codify the Vulnerabilities Equities Process. Yet if government officials pour time and money into “solutions” targeting outdated issues, the public may remain as ill-prepared for the next botnet or malware attack as the last. Clearer thinking by policymakers about cybercrime is critical for improving how consumers and businesses prepare for the next hit.

First, it’s necessary to broaden the scope of concern about the damage these attacks cause. For the last 20 years, online security discussions have focused solely on data breaches and identity theft. But, any introductory textbook on information security will tell you that it’s essential to focus on integrity and availability of the data as well. Before WannaCry, the Mirai botnet attack unleashed billions of phony requests to a few websites, shutting them, and the services that rely on them, down. These attacks show that hackers can use brute force to shut down government services, cripple businesses and hurt consumers. But making users’ data unavailable can do almost as much damage as stealing it. Future attacks that merely alter data — thus undermining faith in the accuracy of things like bank or personal health records — can have similarly devastating effects and cost billions in losses.

It’s a mistake to believe that we can protect the public if the culprits are tracked down and arrested. Cybercrime is lucrative, and the tools of the trade are increasingly sophisticated and readily available. Fewer than 1 percent of all cybercriminals are arrested because it is so hard for law enforcement agencies to find them. Most cybercriminals attack from countries that lack the laws and tools needed to convict them. New technological interventions will be necessary.

Now consider how cybercrime can change and evolve. Spam, for example, is a much smaller problem now than it was 10 years ago. That’s partially because a few of the worst spammers were arrested. It’s also because tech companies competed to come up with technologies to keep their customers’ inboxes free from offers from Nigerian princes or bogus online pharmacies. When companies compete over security, the public wins and crime decreases. Government policies that encourage this kind of innovation and competition would benefit consumers.

WannaCry also showed that more user education does not dramatically reduce the incidence of ransomware, data theft and other cyberattacks. Most people know that patching is important. But it’s still not being implemented at scale, partially because everyone has their own devices, and those devices are increasingly connected to the internet. Instead of relying on users to upgrade their security, the tech industry should automate patching to keep our computers, phones and Internet of Things devices protected.

Fixating on establishing industry standards for proper consumer and corporate “cyberhygiene” is a distraction that may slow down cybersecurity innovation. Standards — when agreement can be reached, which is rare — typically take many years to develop, and this results in internet users relying on outdated software and hardware. Flexible approaches like the National Institute of Standards and Technology cybersecurity framework that raise questions but don’t dictate specific solutions are better.

Fortunately, there are more and more powerful technologies that can help defeat problems like ransomware and botnet attacks — but we’ll have to adopt new thinking on cyberattacks if we are to put them to use. The most important technology is cloud-based services, which can be used for storing and encrypting data, for blocking cyberattacks and for providing applications ranging from social media to specialized business services. Too many people are still reluctant to move their data off their premises, and in some cases they are even prohibited by law from doing so. But, a two-person dental office cannot do a better job of protecting its data and networks than a cloud company with leading-edge technology and best-in-class engineers dedicated to ensuring their systems are secure.

Finally, tech companies can become a first line of defense, particularly if the U.S. government shares any software vulnerabilities it discovers. The president and Congress should work together to codify the Vulnerabilities Equities Process so that national security and law enforcement agencies can provide tech companies with the sort of insights that can help them close gaps before malicious actors exploit them. Our national economic security depends on this. We should enact legislation that favors disclosure of vulnerabilities to U.S. tech companies, and the recently introduced Protecting our Ability to Counter Hacking Act has helped start that conversation.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are other effective tools for preventing or responding to attacks. But these new solutions will not be adopted if governments and businesses don’t understand that much of the old thinking about cyberthreats and cybercrime has to be reconsidered in light of emerging threats.

Tim Sparapani is a data privacy law and policy expert serving as senior policy fellow with CALinnovates and principal at SPQR Strategies.

This piece was originally published on Morning Consult.

How SB 649 Will Help Keep California Competitive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CALinnovates’ Kish Rajan Talks About How SB 649 Will Help Keep California Competitive

A bill currently making its way through the state Senate would make it easier for California to move to a 5G network. But it has stoked blowback from local municipalities that fear giving up any control over where phone companies can place the small cell antennas necessary for making 5G a reality.

CALinnovate’s Chief Evangelist, Kish Rajan, went on AirTalk on KPCC to debate the merits of the bill. Right now, thanks to a hodgepodge of local regulations, it can take up to two years to approve a single small cell. That kind of bureaucratic slowdown will hamper California’s ability to upgrade its network at a time when other states are moving quickly towards a 5G future.

The bill will open the door for better phone service throughout the state and will provide the backbone for smart cities, more efficient agriculture and even self-driving cars.

Retail Isn’t Dying, It’s Being Revolutionized

By Kish Rajan

There’s almost nothing more depressing than the sight of a dying mall. If you’ve ever walked through one of these places, you know the sadness of the empty store fronts, the echoing atriums and the going out of business sales at the few remaining shops.

It’s enough to make anyone think that we’re witnessing the end of in-person shopping as we transition to online purchasing. But don’t let those sad malls fool you. Retail is far from dead — but it is evolving in ways that could benefit both shoppers and workers.

First, it’s worth noting that the death of brick and mortar shopping has been greatly exaggerated. E-commerce only accounts for 10% of retail overall. According to NPD, 95% of Americans shop at Wal-Mart while only 42% shop at Amazon. And those dying malls? They’re more a sign of overdevelopment than a harbinger of the obsolescence of retail. The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015 according to research from Cowen & Co. What we’re seeing now is more of a rightsizing than a decline.

And many malls are reinventing themselves. Take the Westfield Mall outside of Los Angeles. Located in the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley, it’s often almost impossible to find parking there on the weekends. Once a sleepy shopping center stocked with the usual suspects, the mall is now home to outposts of hot Asian retailers like SST&C out of Taiwan and Muji, a Japanese lifestyle store.

You see this kind of rethinking of retail everywhere you go. Online stores like Warby Parker and Modcloth are popping up in real life around the country. At the same time classic brick and mortar shops, like Nordstromand Best Buy, are using their physical stores to help drives sales online and vice versa.

This kind of creativity is exciting but it is just part of the overall evolution in retail. As more shopping moves online, it’s inevitable that we’ll see a change in the overall demand for different kinds of workers. Just look at Amazon Go, the online retailer’s latest foray into the real world. The Settle-based supermarket will work completely by automation. You just take what you need and leave and Amazon charges your account without requiring any human interaction at all. It’s a delight for shoppers but could dramatically reshape the number and types of jobs in future grocery stores.

As low-paid jobs fade, they’ll be replaced by higher-paying jobs in both physical and online retail. A recent study by the Progressive Policy Instituteshows that while retail saw a gain of 27,000 jobs last year, ecommerce jobs climbed by 97,000. Those ecommerce jobs pay an average $21.13 compared to an average $16.65 per hour in general retail.

But the trick will be moving displaced workers into better jobs that will pay more. It’s naïve to think that a laid-off cashier in a small town in Alabama can just pick up and move to a higher paying ecommerce job that might be located in Washington state.

In order for the new economy to benefit everyone, we have to make sure these new jobs are available to everyone. We can do that by ensuring technology jobs are spread throughout the country, not just concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and Boston. Smaller towns can become tech hubs. Just look at what’s happening in Augusta, Ga., where a group of entrepreneurs are building incubators and helping to create a tech-friendly environment.

We also need to laser focus on retraining workers. That means tech companies and government working together to come up with smart new ways to train people. One good example of this is TechHire Eastern Kentucky. Launched by Ankur Gopal, the CEO of Interapt out of Louisville, Ky., with support from the local government, the program trains people through class study and apprenticeships to move into tech jobs.

If we are to successfully move to the next phase of retail, which will be a mix of brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, we need to make sure there are new and better opportunities for workers. Those opportunities will come from creative new shops as well as good-paying tech and warehouse jobs. It’s a mix that will be good for customers, and good for employees.

Kish Rajan is Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates.

CALinnovates Statement on the Appointment of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to the FCC

According to multiple reports, the White House has decided to nominate former FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to return to the agency. We join a bipartisan chorus in declaring that it’s about time.

Should Rosenworcel’s appointment be confirmed by Congress, her return to the FCC will inject an even greater amount of wisdom and forward-thinking to this currently condensed policy-making body. As we noted when she was initially appointed to the FCC in 2012, and as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has correctly pointed out, Rosenworcel understands the rapidly changing nature of technology and the important role the tech sector plays in the innovation economy. Among the many issues Rosenworcel has championed that will return to the regulatory discussion include a vital continuation of the education and advocacy she continues to lead around the closing of the homework gap. The FCC and the nation will be well-served by her experience, expertise and intellect.

“Americans from Silicon Valley to the Hudson Valley will benefit greatly from Jessica Rosenworcel’s reappointment to the FCC. Welcome back, Commissioner Rosenworcel. You’ve been missed,” said Mike Montgomery, CALinnovates executive director.

Solving Infrastructure Problems From the Bottom Up

By Kish Rajan

Walking down the streets of San Diego, it’s not immediately apparent that the city is at the center of a technological revolution in infrastructure. That’s because the technology, 3,200 sensors, is hidden inside the city’s new street lights. The sensors collect data that will help the city save $2.5 million on electricity each year, track air quality, and improve traffic flow and parking. They can even be of use to public-safety first responders.

San Diego’s smart lights are just part of the city’s push to rebuild its infrastructure. Last June, voters approved the Rebuild San Diego ballot initiative, which will provide up to $4 billion for infrastructure projects over the next 25 years.

Expect to see more local and state governments taking infrastructure problems into their own hands. Given the realities of politics in Washington, they know the folly of waiting for the federal government to step in and save the day. And it’s highly unlikely that any new infrastructure plan that did emerge from Washington would cover more than a fraction of the $4.6 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates it would cost to fix everything — more than the federal government spends in a year.

ASCE’s latest report card gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus. And no one knows better than those at the local level how our deteriorating infrastructure makes us less competitive globally, not to mention the safety concerns it raises for the people who use crumbling bridges, overpasses and tunnels every day or who drink water that might be contaminated by sewage overflows, just to name a few issues. They need to take a page from San Diego’s playbook and find creative ways to start solving infrastructure problems from the bottom up.

It’s already beginning to happen. South Bend, Ind., for example, is a sewer overflow city. Hundreds of billions of gallons of raw sewage overflow into local rivers and lakes every year. Aiming to improve the situation, the city, under Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has begun using a system called CSOnet, developed by a local company, that collects data from sensors inside the sewers so the city can redirect water to empty pipes and reduce the overflows.

In Multnomah County, Ore., more than a third of the commercial buildings use more energy than they should. But the Building Ready Multnomah initiative, started by former County Commissioner Jules Bailey, helps finance capital improvements that reduce energy consumption or generate energy. The organization leverages public and private resources for the loans and encourages participants to use the savings generated from becoming more energy efficient toward seismic upgrades to prepare for natural disasters.

And as some Western states struggle to build up their renewable-energy infrastructure, other states, including California, have excess renewable energy capacity. California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg has proposed the creation of a regional grid operator and energy exchange to make it easier for states to buy and sell energy to each other, which could reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions.

These efforts might seem small, but they can add up to a serious impact. With the continuing dysfunction in Washington, it may be years before we see a comprehensive federal infrastructure effort. But as these local leaders have shown, that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to improve our grade.

Big Data Will Help Revolutionize The Pot Industry

By Mike Montgomery

Getting a Rocky Mountain high may soon be legal in all 50 states, which means pot is fast on its way to becoming just another industry, albeit an exploding one. And as the marijuana industry comes aboveground, it’s opening a huge space for the usual disruptors — tech startups and data analytics firms.

Startups like Eaze in California began with medical marijuana, using technology to provide on-demand marijuana deliveries via an app. Eaze also provides data to help retailers predict supply and demand. MJ Freeway offers an agricultural tracking product that helps marijuana license holders manage their businesses and comply with regulations in Colorado. Both companies can be scaled up easily as more states come online with recreational use.

Dozens of other startups are devoted to finding ways to use technology to improve mundane tasks, including human resources, transportation, regulatory compliance, insurance and mobile payments.

On the analytics side, Cannabase is a Colorado-based wholesale market that treats marijuana just like any other commodity. It provides real-time market insights to wholesale growers and retailers, helping them anticipate market trends, price changes and volume fluctuations in both the medical and recreational markets. Cannabase also provides analytics to advertisers looking to market to growers and dispensaries. “Data-driven operations are the ones most likely to survive,” says Jennifer Beck, Cannabase co-founder.

Beck is talking about when marijuana is legalized across the U.S. Right now, it is still a Schedule 1 drug, regulated in the same manner as cocaine and heroin. But a trio of new bills proposed by members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus in the House of Representatives brings federal legalization one step closer. The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act is self-explanatory, while the other bills pertain to pot-industry taxes and reforms to banking and research regulations.

Although it’s legal for recreational use in just a handful of states, marijuana already is the fastest-growing industry on the planet, according to Arcview Market Research’s 2017 report on the marijuana market. Sales hit $6.7 billion in 2016 — a 34 percent jump from the previous year. Arcview expects the legal marijuana market in North America to be nearly $23 billion by 2021 — all without federal legalization.

Those are the kinds of numbers that draw venture capital. The total amount of capital raised by cannabis companies in 2015-2016 was more than $2 billion, up 45 percent from the previous year, according to Arcview, which itself has invested $118 million in more than 145 companies.

Another cannabis VC company is Poseidon Asset Management, which has more than $15 million invested in technology firms like Headset and Wurk. Poseidon invests mostly in ancillaries — genetic research, biotech, agtech and, of course, data analytics. “The industry is evolving and that’s where technology companies come into play,” says Emily Paxhia, managing director of Poseidon Asset Management. “It’s being powered by people who are entrepreneurial in spirit and willing to participate when it’s still a little more high-risk.”

When legalization happens — and it will — companies with access to big data will have a big advantage in the multibillion-dollar market. As legalization spreads, prices will decline and the number of products will explode, making branding and marketing vital. Big data in particular is necessary to gain insight into the potential of the pot industry. “Data allows people to make informed decisions, track trends, merchandise products and advertise effectively,” Paxhia says. “From a regulatory standpoint, this is critical to demonstrate the evolution of the industry.”

Right now, the entire legal-marijuana industry is a somewhat unknown space, but soon it will be filled with unlimited data on sales, markets and consumer behavior. “The rest of the business and innovation world is infatuated with data, and there is no reason for cannabis to be the exception,” Paxhia says.

SCOTUS Smacks Down Patent Trolls

By Mike Montgomery

In all the political hoopla dominating the news lately, many people probably missed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will actually have a huge impact on technological innovation. On May 22, the court ruled to restrict where patent lawsuits can be filed. The decision is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of cases filed by so-called patent trolls. It’s about time.

Trolls don’t build anything, employ anyone or add any value whatsoever to the economy. They simply buy up overly broad, somewhat vague intellectual property (IP) patents and use them as cudgels to bully plaintiffs into paying them to go away. Trolls count on a trial being more expensive than an out-of-court settlement.

Until this recent decision, the trolls’ favorite place to bring suits was the Eastern District of Texas, which has rules — and juries — that favor IP plaintiffs. It’s not a huge surprise that more than 40% of all patent lawsuits are filed there. One East Texas judge oversaw more patent cases than the federal judges in California, Florida and New York combined. The region became a troll haven partially by accident, but mostly by design. All those lawsuits — more than 2,500 last year in the region— bring in legal teams that spend money at area hotels and restaurants and usually even throw a few crumbs to the local legal talent.

But the SCOTUS decision sounded a death knell for their cottage industry. In the two weeks preceding the ruling, 74 patent cases were filed in the Eastern District. The week after — just four cases. The well dried up fast. That’s because the ruling in Heartland v Kraft means patent cases must be filed where the infringement took place, or where the defendant has an established business. That’s usually not East Texas.

This decision is going to make a huge difference for startups and small businesses that can’t afford to fight expensive legal cases in far-flung towns, especially when the deck already is stacked against defendants. It’s easier to settle immediately, or to just not go down that innovation path.

Patent trolls waste billions of dollars each year and ultimately hurt consumers. Studies have shown that trolls syphon off money from research and development, venture capital investments and tech startups in particular. Patents are designed to protect investment and innovation, and they work in some industries like big pharma. But the tech industry has been crying out for reform.

Unfortunately, Congress has repeatedly refused to act, despite two bills that would reform the tech patent industry. The Patent Act would make it more difficult to file troll suits, while the Innovation Act would cut down on the broad, vague language used by trolls and, more importantly, force them to pay legal fees when they lose.

Of course, action may not be as necessary now. The new ruling most likely will make it harder for trolls to consolidate cases, thereby eliminating marginal cases and potentially leading to a reduction in the number of cases filed overall.

Mike Montgomery is the Executive Director at CALinnovates.

Farming Takes Flight

By Tim Sparapani

Ernest Earon was walking through a client’s farm recently when he noticed one of his company’s unmanned drones flying over the fields snapping photos. It was a heart-tugging moment for the entrepreneur. “Unexpectedly coming upon one of our aircraft, up there doing its job, was just a pretty cool moment for me,” said Earon, co-founder and chief technology officer at PrecisionHawk, a drone mapping and analytics company that helps users collect and analyze data coming from drones.

PrecisionHawk has been expanding throughout South America and Australia for years but was stymied in the U.S. by onerous regulations. After the FAA loosened those regulations in late August 2016, growers started adopting new drone technology at a breakneck pace.

It’s just one aspect of the booming “ag tech” (agricultural technology) field. Just this week, CB Insights identified more than 100 private companies in ag tech, sorting them into nine main categories including sensors, smart irrigation, and robotics and drones.

Farming has always been an information intensive industry: Growers need answers to hundreds of questions about air and soil conditions, plant stressors and optimal timing for everything from planting to harvesting. In the past, obtaining the data needed to answer those questions required thousands of hours and lots of workers. Many of today’s farms are efficient, data-gathering dynamos. Tractors have IP addresses, harvesters can measure the yield as it’s coming out of the ground, biometric sensors report on livestock health, and sophisticated algorithms help farmers manage tasks such as watering and seed ordering.

Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of these technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization. The tractor, for example, led to a 140% jump in farm productivity between 1910 and 1950. Other mechanization, such as automatic harvesters and automatic planters that incorporated herbicides, spurred another climb of 170% between 1950 and 2010, says Michael Walden, professor of agriculture and resource economics at North Carolina State University. “That’s more than double the productivity gains in the nonfarm economy.”

Walden thinks we’re about to take another leap forward in productivity as more farmers adopt ag tech. “That’s what technology does,” he says. “It allows us to get more from less.”

Technology is important because “no one’s giving out new farmland,” says Earon. “The costs of spraying pesticides and fertilizers everywhere is too great. We have to do more with less. Farmers know the climate is changing. Everyone is looking for ways to get that leg up and continue to produce.”

Drones are a key part of the data gathering. They can cover large distances very fast, take high-resolution photos and fly over fields without affecting crops, all at a relatively low price.

“We put a lot of different sensors on them and can collect the exact insights you need to address the problem in front of you,” says Earon. “They see that the section of the field with drainage issues — which we know about because we’ve done 3D modeling — lost a lot of nitrogen because of the rain and we need to reapply it. The drone is collecting the information and providing that insight back to the grower.”

So far, adoption of data technology is highest where there are problems, such as on farms where drought or pests are present. It’s also getting easier to buy and use the technology. Drones cost as little as $1,000, and PrecisionHawk gives its software away for free. “We want as many people using it as possible so we get that feedback to help us make it better,” say Earon.

He’s already looking at a future where crops and sensors are developed together, and fewer humans are necessary to plant and harvest crops. “Farming is going to be less about driving tractors and a whole lot more about making decisions on what’s coming up next year,” he says. “Humans are not going to be involved except to manage the whole process.” There’s already a group in England attempting to grow a barley field without any human activity on the field itself using drones, driverless tractors and remote-controlled combines.

As technology takes over the rote parts of farming, different kinds of human work will be required. In fact, PrecisionHawk currently is staffing up on agronomists, geo-spacial scientists and other experts. Other drone companies in the farming space include TerrAvion, Agribotix and Skycision.

“Let the machines do what they’re good at,” says Earon. “Robots are very good at doing the same thing over and over and over again. They don’t care how hot it is. They just take good pictures.”

Humans, on the other hand, are good at using data to build new tools and figuring out new ways to use it. “We’re not putting people out of work,” says Earon. “We’re letting them do other things.”

Tim Sparapani is Senior Policy Fellow at CALinnovates.

SB 182 Will Help Move California’s Economy Into The 21st Century

By Kish Rajan

If you live in any big city in California, chances are you’ve used a rideshare service to go to or from the airport. It’s become such an easy option that most of us take it for granted.

But a lot of effort goes into making that ride so easy for you. And much of that effort comes from the drivers — independent entrepreneurs who have turned their cars in to rolling small businesses.   These small business owners enjoy the freedom, flexibility and rewards of being their own bosses — even if just for a few hours per week.

And while they are experts in navigating the streets of their communities where they drive, they can often be challenged by all the government regulations they have to navigate. Los Angeles County, for example, is made up of 88 different municipalities and each of those municipalities has its own business license standards for drivers. As they drive through different towns, drivers are subject to different licenses, fees and requirements.

Driving from San Jose to Oakland a driver goes through 5 different cities. All over the state, drivers are moving through different cities every day — and running the risk of getting fined for not having the right business license.

But to expect drivers to obtain licenses from every municipality they might go through is unreasonable. Most licenses cost around $100 each and those fees start to add up creating a serious barrier to entry for new drivers who are really entrepreneurs (87% of Uber drivers, for example, say they drive because they want to be their own boss). As a state, we want to do everything we can to encourage entrepreneurship and to help give people the freedom to change jobs and build new businesses. We don’t want to burden people with unnecessary regulations.

This is as perfect example of a modern industry operating under outdated regulations. Of course it’s important that people feel like they are in the hands of licensed professional whether they’re getting a massage, hiring a plumber or getting a ride. But forcing those businesspeople to get often redundant business licenses just because they cross a municipal line is old-fashioned thinking. In today’s economy, people need to be able to go where their customers are and that’s not always in the same town.

That’s why we support SB 182. The bill would allow drivers to obtain one business license that could be used across municipal lines. Drivers would be able to move freely around the state knowing they are licensed to operate everywhere; and passengers would get the assurance that they are in a car with a driver who has a business license in addition to the stamp of approval from the rideshare company.

The bill also stands to benefit the many different municipalities of California. Instead of having the state issue the business license, it could be issued by the driver’s home town. That way, if a driver is based in Livermore but mostly picks up riders in San Francisco, Livermore would get the benefit of the licensing revenue.

SB 182 also helps protect drivers’ privacy. Some jurisdictions publicly post addresses of people who apply for business licenses. Because drivers essentially work out of their cars, their home addresses have been made public. SB 182 would ensure that when drivers apply for licenses, their addresses remain private.

This bill should be seen as a model for legislation going forward. The sharing economy (or as I prefer to call it, the personal enterprise economy) is going to continue to be an important part of our economic mix. We need to make sure our laws and regulations are updated to protect workers as well as customers. SB 182 acknowledges that the world is changing and creates smart regulations that make sense in today’s world.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected].

The Future Of Work Depends On Answering Important Questions Today

By Kish Rajan

Today, many of us are trying to sort through a contradiction in how we understand our economy. Fewer people are unemployed than at any time in the past decade. But as a country, we don’t feel like we’re as prosperous as we’ve been in the past. Many people would like to blame technology for this phenomenon, pointing to chips and data as the great job killers. But as with many things in life — the truth is more complicated.

Take productivity for example. This is an important measure because increased productivity helps boost the annual GDP, and can lead to higher wages and better standards of living. Technology has been a giant boon for manufacturing productivity, which has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, with half that gain coming in the tech sector, according to a new study by the Progressive Policy Institute. Since 2007, when the current tech boom started, employment in computer and mathematical occupations — including good-paying jobs for software developers and network administrators — has grown by more than 900,000 jobs. One study found that robots added nearly a half percent to annual GDP growth between 1993 and 2007.

But then there’s the flip side. Well over half of us are in jobs that could be at least 30% automated right now, according to research by McKinsey & Company.

In the United States, middle-income households, the young and those with less education have already been hit hardest by automation. One study by Boston University found that robotics reduce the employment-to-population ratio and wages in those sectors where automation is added. According to this study, workers with only a high school degree saw their wages fall from 80% of their college-educated peers to less than 60% between 1975 to 2014.

Unsurprisingly, these low-skilled, less-educated workers are employed in occupations at the greatest risk of further automation. In fact, experts predict the number of robots performing jobs in the U.S. will quadruple by 2025, which could eliminate as many as 3.4 million jobs.

These conflicting numbers paint a picture of a world where more high-paying jobs are being created while low-paying jobs are being replaced by robots. It’s no wonder that so many people are so concerned about the future of work.

So what can we do?

Believe it or not, we have a lot of power to shape how this all plays out. The future of work is going to depend a lot on the decisions businesses and government make today. And in order for those with power to make the right decisions, we all have to be asking the right questions.

Is technology causing net job growth or net job loss? It can be difficult to tell. Different reports tell different stories. Some job categories are growing and some are shrinking, so what’s the overall effect?

And if high-paying tech-heavy jobs are growing faster than low-wage service jobs are disappearing, how do we as a nation of workers adjust? We’ve seen that government-sponsored training to move displaced workers into new tech jobs isn’t always successful. Is there a better way? And who bears the responsibility of retraining workers, businesses or the government?

How do we balance encouraging tech companies to grow while ensuring that people have good jobs? It’s important that innovators and entrepreneurs be encouraged to build the Googles and Facebooks of tomorrow, but what do we do when those new companies displace workers in other industries? And how do we make sure that those tech jobs are popping up in Peoria and not just in Silicon Valley?

These questions should be high-priority for government at every level, from city hall to the White House.

Technology has always been a convenient boogie man for politicians looking to place blame for a changing job environment. The automobile put carriage drivers out of work. TV eventually killed radio storytelling (though thanks to podcasts it’s making a comeback) and online travel companies kicked most travel agents to the curb.

But each of these innovations also advanced our society in important ways and created new jobs. There’s no reason to think the current tech revolution will be any different and when you look at the productivity numbers from the recent Progressive Policy Institute report, there’s reason for hope.

But we’d be foolish to hide our heads in the sand and deny that the landscape is changing in a way that is hurting some Americans. Finding the right balance here will be key to building an America that will prosper and offer new opportunities to all citizens.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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