Politics

‘We need to make sure that the next Steve Jobs is somewhere in the US’

Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy, on keeping up in 5G, tech's response to COVID-19 and America vs. China.

Matt Lira

Matt Lira says he still wouldn't bet against America's leadership in 5G.

Photo: The White House

Matt Lira might only have a couple of months left in his job.

As special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives in the White House's Office of American Innovation, November's election will help decide how he spends the next four years. But during a panel discussion hosted by Protocol on Wednesday about enabling the technology of the future, he argued that the work he does between now and the end of the year would be the same regardless of who is elected.

"There are things that, from a public policy perspective, can only be achieved in the first year of a term," he said during a conversation with Protocol's Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbuam, as well as Alexiaa Jordan, an analyst at The Lincoln Network. "And so my personal objective, and I think a lot of people on the team, is how do we position the country to really make meaningful progress in 2021 by laying the foundation for that today."

There's a lot of tech policy issues to think about right now, after all — from how COVID-19 has changed the path of American innovation to what the nation can do to find more of an edge in the development of 5G. During the panel discussion, Lira shared his thoughts on these topics and more.

The following questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Obviously so much has changed in terms of the economic reality that we're living through right now, and I imagine that must have somewhat reoriented the priorities of your office. Can you talk to me a little bit about how these last six months have changed the direction of the Office of American Innovation? Are there new areas you're focused on now?

Dealing with the national pandemic and the response to it moved a lot of things around on the priority list, but frankly many of the underlying issues and concerns are things that have been either worked on in the last several years or things that were well underway. The biggest change really wasn't a shift in terms of direction as much it was accelerating the need for progress.

Then the second aspect … from the vantage point of my office and the team that I work with has been the unbelievable outpouring of offers for support, ways to help from every stakeholder really in our country. And particularly in the technology community, it's been remarkable and frankly somewhat moving to see stakeholders who don't always agree on every issue of the day kind of raise their hand and say "how can I help" or "here's how I think I can help." We've seen that from the C-suite all the way down to entry-level professionals throughout the tech sector and throughout our economy. So that's been really remarkable.

Can you give us some examples of what sorts of projects you're saying have been accelerated?

Clearly a great example there is around telehealth, where this is something that we were laying the foundation for. But given the national emergency, the initial response was to issue waivers and permit emergency use authorization of telehealth technology by HHS and other federal stakeholders. And of course we've seen remarkable uptick in the use of that technology. And then recently, in the last several weeks, we've taken steps to make some of those changes permanent.

It's an example where I think both, from the perspective of policy but also from the adoption rates across the country, we're several years ahead of where we likely would have been in calmer waters. You see that in other sectors as well, but telehealth is a particularly good example.

We can't have a conversation about the future of the economy without talking about the role of China and Chinese companies in that economy. And right now TikTok is acting as a proxy for U.S.-China relations. It's emerged as one of the few true competitors to social networks like Facebook and YouTube, but it's also facing this potential ban if it doesn't sell in the next few weeks. Why should the U.S. government be in a position of controlling what people have on their phones? And isn't that similar to what China does in terms of controlling technology within its borders?

First of all, [I'll} just disclaim, I probably shouldn't comment on the specific case referenced just because it's an ongoing matter involving various processes, but the broader view of that issue is point well taken. I think that first and foremost, we need to make sure that the digital ecosystem in our country is secure and that it protects the ground rules that generally we agreed on as the tech sector. I think it's important that we come up with ultimately free market solutions to those problems. But we do need to make sure that we take them seriously as well.

I guess my last bit on that is, no one would have thought in the 1970s that America would lose the lead in manufacturing that we possessed at that time. And yet, 20 years later, we were where we were. I think when it relates to the digital economy, we need to be very mindful of that ecosystem that has created the companies like Facebook, Google and the other American companies you referenced. And then any entrant into that field, whether it be American or global, agrees to our ground rules.

I want to talk a little bit about 5G and what it's going to take to get to a place where it is available in mainstream in the U.S. Most 5G hardware providers beyond Qualcomm and Apple are foreign, so where is investment going, and what needs to happen over the next 10 years, to make America competitive in 5G with American products?

It's one of the core industries of the future. So first and foremost, we know the investment in the R&D in that sector — we've made substantial public investments through the National Labs, and the National Science Foundation, etc. — needs to continue. And if anything, it needs to continue to grow.

Second, spectrum allocation matters a lot. And the important midband spectrum availability. The Department of Defense, recently working with the FCC, and, of course, the White House, was able to come to an agreement on freeing up some of that spectrum and being able to redeploy it for 5G purposes. So the combination of the midband spectrum and the C-band spectrum auctions hopefully this year, I think will have a very significant effect on the availability of 5G in the United States.

And third, in sort of something that I always come back to, part of what will make this ecosystem successful in terms of competitiveness is not taking for granted the innovation ecosystem that we have in this country, and the ability for startups to be created that leverage that technology in a way that provides value for end users, whether they be enterprise customers or consumer customers.

We have an incredible track record as a country in doing all three of those things exceptionally well in the innovations sectors.

As we continue to confront what I would call the policy challenges of the last wave of technological innovation, particularly here in Washington, we have to make sure that the choices that we make don't prohibit America to lead the next wave of policy innovation. What I like to say is the obligation of public policy in this area is to make sure that the next Steve Jobs, when she creates [a technology] in her dorm room or a garage or a coffee shop, is somewhere in the United States. We shouldn't take that for granted. And if we do that right, then I wouldn't bet against America's leadership in 5G.

You either have a couple months left in your job or four more years. So what do you hope to accomplish in these next few months as we head to the election?

There are things that, from a public policy perspective, can only be achieved in the first year of a term. And so next year will be the first year of a term, whether it's the second term or a first term. And so my personal objective, and I think a lot of people on the team, is how do we position the country to really make meaningful progress in 2021 by laying the foundation for that today.

I like to say that we're sort of in the fifth year of a 10-year journey as a country building an institutional capability for change management with how we leverage technology, federal, state and local. That involves how do we actually do that? It involves who actually does it and it involves, how do you pay for it? And we've made progress on all three of those points. But I think there's still more work to do.

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins