From steam engines to search engines: Reflections from the Future Tech Forum

A replica of the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine now sits in the Energy Hall at the Science Museum in London.

Last week, I spoke at the inaugural Future Tech Forum at the Science Museum in London. Hosted by the UK government, the Forum aims to facilitate an open dialogue among leading voices from government, industry, civil society, and academia.

After more than two years, it was great to be back in the UK to see colleagues, meet with government leaders, and to feel the dynamism and excitement of one of the world’s great cities. The Forum started just as researchers in Botswana and South Africa were announcing the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant. This news added renewed urgency to questions at the top of everyone’s minds — how to harness the enormous potential of digital technology to benefit societies and solve pressing social challenges.

Three themes stood out to me from the day’s conversations: investing in the future, reconciling policy tensions, and building trust in technology and institutions.

The Forum was held at the Science Museum in London

1. If democracies want to benefit from the technologies of tomorrow, they need to start investing in them today.

I’ve written about the power of collective innovation before, but the point bears repeating: Democracies, unlike their geopolitical competitors, can draw on their values of openness and pluralism to gain a strategic advantage in the global race to develop new technologies, but we can’t rest on past laurels. We need to re-discover the lost art of public-private partnership and recommit to serious and sustained public and private investments in R&D.

I’m seeing some forward momentum in this area that makes me optimistic: For example, the UK government recently committed to increase R&D investment, centering its post-pandemic recovery plans around innovation, with the aim of growing its research investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. In the US, Google has strongly supported the bipartisan Endless Frontier Act (its title is a nice shout-out to Vannevar Bush’s visionary report on the promise of science) and other proposals to increase research and development funding. But more funding alone won’t be enough — we also need regulatory strategies that promote collective innovation and values-based efficiency — including new approaches to expanding digital skills that give people on-ramps to the economy of the future.

Larger companies like Google have an important role to play in supporting this work, which is why we’ve invested more than $100 billion in R&D over the last five years, with much of that going to promote basic research. Collective innovation rests on open data and open-source code — which is why we offer many publicly available datasets, free services, and open-source software libraries, and partner with others to help make AI broadly accessible. One example of the latter is the work we do with the Lacuna Fund to help fill data gaps in developing countries.

2. Well-regulated technology can be a powerful force for good, but progress requires leaders to address important tensions between and among competing social priorities.

A common theme at the Forum was how regulators of technology can promote the development of tech that broadly benefits citizens, while at the same time addressing social, political, and economic concerns.

Each policy choice involves complex trade-offs between competing Interests. Demands for greater user privacy can conflict with law enforcement demands for access to data. The interests of content rights owners can conflict with demands for public access to information. And on and on. Democracies need open and honest discussions to reconcile these tough issues. A good recent example comes from the UK, where competition and privacy authorities have worked on a holistic review of our Privacy Sandbox work, creating a forum for multi-stakeholder input and helping us understand and address complementary regulatory concerns.

And beyond individual reviews, we get more considered public policy when policymakers, companies, technologists, civil society, and academia engage in a rich and open discussion of priorities, trade-offs, and impacts. Done right, those conversations and opportunities for input can build trust in science and technology.

Discussing how tech can create broad benefits for society on stage at Future Tech Forum

3. When we talk about fulfilling the promise of science and innovation, trust is foundational.

While open conversations are a start, to really build public trust in technology, we need a new social contract. One that takes advantage of the comparative advantages of agile, dynamic, empowering technology and the ability of governments to ensure that that technology is used in socially responsible ways.

I can speak to this from my experience at Google, where we’ve seen the important relationship between transparency and trust. People find the products that we build really useful, but they also want a deeper understanding of how these products work and greater assurances about how we and other technology companies operate. Cross-industry initiatives are a step in the right direction. I can’t overemphasize the importance of partnering with others, investing in coalitions and joining collaborative programs to share information, explore solutions, and agree on best practices. But beyond that, people value governments’ ability to promote transparency and provide assurances that the marketplace is working as it should.

Policymaking guided by evidence and data can help governments keep pace and tailor their approaches as they solve for the challenges and opportunities that come with rapid technology change. Institutions like the G7, G20, and OECD can also play an important role when they support coherent domestic, regional, and international regulatory approaches that balance innovation, economic growth, and social goals. These multilateral organizations can help develop frameworks with the appropriate balance of roles and responsibilities across regulators, law enforcement, industry, and civil society. And recent initiatives like the Transatlantic Trade & Technology Council (TTC) are helping to advance thoughtful and aligned regulatory structures across regions.

Governments and the private sector, working together, can help people participate in technological progress. Access to skills and infrastructure helps everyone use, understand, and share in the benefits of digital technologies, and that expanded access empowers new generations of diverse innovators — something that is critical as we set forth on this next wave of innovation.

We are living in an information revolution — and we all have a role to play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how great it was that the Future Tech Forum took place at the Science Museum. I last visited the Museum many years ago with my family. Walking back through the doors, I was immediately drawn to the huge cast iron and brick engine that had captivated my children when they were young: Newcomen’s atmospheric engine. Newcomen was looking to solve the practical problem of flooding in mines, and his every-day invention eventually led to the creation of the internal combustion engine and kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

We’re living through a different sort of revolution today, an information revolution. But the social, political, and technological changes will be just as consequential.

Working today in a tech hub like London, Singapore, or Silicon Valley is like living in Manchester or Liverpool in the age of Newcomen or James Watt. (One of my favorite historical coincidences: 1776 was the year not just of the American Revolution, but of Watt’s commercialization of his steam engine and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations — political, technological, and economic developments that shaped generations.) Whether we’re talking about steam engines or search engines, the pace, and the promise, of progress is extraordinary — and with it comes a responsibility to make sure that its rising tide lifts all boats.

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President, Global Affairs at Google. All things technology and policy. Optimistic about the future; realistic about the challenges. Twitter: @Kent_Walker

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Kent Walker

Kent Walker

President, Global Affairs at Google. All things technology and policy. Optimistic about the future; realistic about the challenges. Twitter: @Kent_Walker

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