Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – Stanford Emerging Technology Review, an ambitious university-wide initiative dedicated to fostering a greater understanding among policymakers, industry leaders, and the attentive public of the breakthroughs and policy implications of frontier technologies shaping societies and economies, launched with a public event on the Stanford campus.
That the initiative has led the university’s leading scientists and engineers to prepare a first edition of the report, Stanford Emerging Technology Review, intended to serve as a primer for ten key technology domains. This report will be updated regularly to inform successive generations of leaders and citizens.
Stanford University President Richard Saller provided opening remarks. The Stanford community audience listened to a conversation between two of that Reviews cochairs, Jennifer Widom (Dean of the School of Engineering) and Senior Fellow Amy Zegart, discussing the origins of the project. In addition, two members of Review‘s faculty from the engineering school, experts in robotics and materials science respectively, and the Review‘s director and editor-in-chief, Herbert Lin (Hank J. Holland Fellow in Cyber Policy and Security), offered highlights of the report. At the end of the event, Director of the Hoover Institution Condoleezza Rice, a cochair of Reviewparticipated in a keynote conversation with tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, where he addressed concerns about how societies are grappling with the rapid pace of technological advances and their effects.
“A remarkable collaboration”
Stanford President Richard Saller noted that the university, based on its history as a catalyst for innovation in Silicon Valley, was uniquely qualified to take on a project of such importance.
“[The Stanford Emerging Technology Review] represents a remarkable collaboration across the university,” said Saller.
A classic of education and discipline, Saller explained how Stanford is not only home to laboratories conducting some of the world’s most cutting-edge scientific and technological research, but also a leading academic center in the social sciences, public policy and ethics. In addition, Stanford boasts faculty and alumni who have served in senior positions in government and industry and have been at the forefront of solving some of the nation’s most vexing policy challenges.
Saller also emphasized how Review represents Stanford’s interdisciplinary approach to learning. Five of Stanford’s seven schools contributed to the publication of the report, as did 11 of its 15 independent laboratories, centers and institutes.
The origins of the Stanford Emerging Technology Review
In their conversation, Zegart and Widom explained that Review was inspired by a visit to Stanford by US Senator Mark Warner from Virginia, who inquired about research and development in new technologies from the university.
Describing the gathering and communication of this collection of information to Warner, Zegart recalled, “It was amazing, and it wasn’t nearly enough. We realized we had to do more.”
Widom explained how Stanford’s engineering and science faculty were eager to engage in a larger dialogue about the broader implications of their work. She said that Review is unique for the voice it gives to technology experts working in academia.
Academic innovation, she noted, is driven by curiosity, not market interests.
“Our faculty work on problems that they think are interesting, are challenging, are important, and are not driven by a need to make money,” Widom said, adding, “Our faculty bring to Technology review their unbiased explanation of technology – where it is now and where it is going in the future.”
Besides, she said Review gives these experts an opportunity to communicate their knowledge and ideas in ways that are accessible to lay people, especially those who hold high positions as US government decision makers.
Zegart described how experts involved in the initiative, in addition to the publication of the report, will conduct briefings for policy makers in Washington, DC and deliver relevant information about the promise and danger of innovation to a wider audience through various multimedia and educational products.
As for the future of these new technologies, Widom said she is particularly excited about how they can help improve human health and well-being. However, she added that misuse of technology was her biggest concern.
“I am most worried about us, about our society and the division in our society. I think technology can do remarkable things, but that’s the risk of technology [that they might be] abused by a society that does not believe in the truth, that does not listen, that is not united in common values,” replied Zegart. “And the values are the basis for everything, both at home and abroad [in terms of] our inspiring force in the world. It’s not a technology concern I have. It is a human concern.”
Robots: Dirty, boring and dangerous
Allison Okamura, Stanford professor of engineering and a faculty council member and contributor to Reviewpresented her expertise in robotics, which she defined as a human-made physical entity that goes beyond artificial intelligence to sense and exert physical effects on the world around it.
Robotics today are used for what she referred to as the “Three D’s” – boring, dirty and dangerous tasks. These tasks include production line support, disaster response and military service, security and transportation.
Okamura explained that autonomous robots work best in controlled environments like production lines. Meanwhile, non-autonomous robots have been indispensable in medical treatment, for example when operated by professionals who, using this technology, can perform operations that are less invasive than manually performed procedures.
The low cost of producing robots comes at an opportune time, she explained, especially as the global population ages. With a labor shortage of professionals providing elderly care, robots could potentially help the elderly care for themselves at home.
However, she maintained that the promise of robotics also comes with safety considerations and potential effects that include the elimination, modification and creation of certain types of jobs. She concluded that despite the promise of robotics, their use should be informed by legal and regulatory measures that mitigate the harms they can pose.
Materials Science: A Fundamental Technology
Zhenan Bao, a Stanford professor of chemical engineering and also a faculty council member and contributor to Reviewdescribed the fundamental nature of materials science, another of the ten topics addressed in the report.
She explained how materials are ubiquitous. Composed of atoms, materials can be visible to the naked eye and in other cases are smaller than the diameter of a single human hair, as in nanomaterials. Additionally, materials contribute to various scientific and technological domains, including the fabrication of biocompatible devices used in medical implants, durable and long-lasting batteries, sustainable plastics, aircraft, and more.
Bao noted that nanotechnology is an active subfield of materials science that has captured the interest of researchers in the past two decades. Nano-assemblies have been used to stabilize mRNA vaccines so that they can be more easily and safely injected into the human body. Quantum dots, or semiconductor nanocrystals, have been used to improve biomedical engineering and increase the performance of solar panels.
The future challenge in the development of materials science, Bao explained, is the transition from research to real applications at scale. While advances in artificial intelligence will be helpful in this transition, long-term development in the field will require significant funding, workforce development, and international research collaboration between the United States and its allies and partners.
All Frontier technologies are interconnected
Herbert Lin, the managing editor and director of Review, explained that progress in one field leads to progress in others. Materials science, for example, which studies the synthesis and structure of atoms, can lead to the manufacture of more advanced semiconductors. More advanced semiconductors will lead to more sophisticated artificial intelligence, which in turn will lead back to even more powerful semiconductors.
“The fields that are helped also return,” Lin explained, adding, “There are these interesting feedback loops between the technologies.”
Lin also explained that these technological domains are rapidly being democratized. Access to frontier technologies and the ability to develop them are spreading beyond the control of major state actors such as the United States, Russia and China. In some areas, the barrier to entry is also very low and does not require training and talent at PhD level. These realities make regulating frontier technologies more complicated, Lin said.
A techno-optimist’s manifesto
In the program’s final session, Condoleezza Rice engaged in conversation with Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, who discussed his recently published “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” In the manifesto, he criticizes the “precautionary principle”, which suggests that progress in technology should be delayed or resisted if its effects on society are unknown or disputed. In the piece, he enumerates what he refers to as lies about the negative effects of technological progress, including job losses, increased inequality, damage to health, deterioration of society, corruption of children and threats to our future.
As an example of the precautionary principle, he highlighted during the conversation with Rice the unrealized potential of nuclear power to produce zero-emission energy. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon called for an ambitious nationwide initiative to reduce foreign dependence on fossil fuels, including the construction of a thousand nuclear power plants by the year 2000. However, this goal was not achieved because Nixon’s plan was followed by stringent regulations – born out of fears that nuclear power would degrade the natural environment – that restricted their construction.
Nevertheless, Andreessen recognized that while the technologies are not inherently bad, humans can misuse them and cause harmful effects. However, these potential effects should not halt technological progress.
Andreessen argued that technologists in places like Silicon Valley and policymakers in Washington should engage with each other to understand these complex issues surrounding the use of frontier technologies.
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