What’s Next: The Government Protocol

By Tom Serres (@tomserres) and Bettina Warburg (@bwarburg)

It’s the day after the election and regardless of how you voted, you’re likely exhausted from a tiresome political season. For better or worse, it’s over and it’s time to move on. So, let’s talk about that.

Between the two of us, we have spent nearly two decades in the world of governance and also in the world of Silicon Valley. Tom has spent over 10 years in politics, mostly doing digital operative work and large-scale political fundraising through his first startup, Rally.org. He has worked with the smallest of political campaigns as well as the largest — from county judge to president of the United States. In total, he’s been in and around nearly 70,000 political campaigns. And Bettina was trained as a political scientist at Georgetown and Oxford, worked at the WHO for a bit, and spent several years studying the future of governance at a prominent Silicon Valley think tank. You could argue we were both growing disillusioned with American politics even before this political cycle. But one of the main reasons for our disillusionment was how little attention our candidates gave to technology.

The technology that should matter to you and the president

Don’t get us wrong, we are not tech solutionists out to claim that Silicon Valley is the beacon of rational progress. Nor do we think platform marketplaces (like Uber or AirBnB) should be applied to everything. But there is no escaping the strength and unrelenting innovation charging out of labs and universities and startups and into our ill-prepared society. There are two reasons why focusing on the intersection of technology and politics is something we care about. The first is probably pretty obvious: time waits for no one. Advances in three specific technology domains are coming very quickly and already affecting our day-to-day lives. Whether you care about the number of jobs in America, your medical future, or freedom and liberty, you should be caring about how our next leader approaches these topics.

1. Autonomous Vehicles and Robotics

We’re not going to lie, the future of autonomous vehicles sounds enticing. There will be a tremendous amount of benefit from the use of autonomous vehicles. Perhaps we can move to more efficient road infrastructure, optimize time, routes, riders, and drivers to potentially reduce our overall carbon footprint. Maybe we can reduce the number of fatal accidents caused by human error. And perhaps we can eliminate traffic congestion and even discomforts like road rage. That said, we’re also going to see the elimination of millions of jobs. Beyond cab drivers, 4 million truck drivers will need to find new work in the United States alone. Sure, we’ll probably have autonomous vehicles picking us up and driving us around at some point, but we’ll likely see the automation of industry first, which means trucks. This is especially true as industrial IoT and robotics begin moving us towards autonomous supply chains that offer a higher degree of responsiveness and efficiency, reducing cost and risk, while improving responses to fluctuating consumer demand.

Eventually with things like blockchain, our industrial IoT devices and autonomous vehicles will be incorporated assets with shareholders. We’ll also see the emergence of face a whole new consumer class: robots. These devices will maintain and manage their own profits and wallets, delivering returns and creating a new consumer class that will have its own spending power. How will the American society respond to this automation? Will we move toward a guaranteed basic income, like Elon Musk and others seems to believe? Who will guide this conversation? How can the next president help lay a proper foundation such that our society can take advantage of this new found power? How will our moral dynamics and choices change when many processes are programmed?

2. Intelligence Augmentation and Artificial Intelligence

Let’s pause for a minute and differentiate between IA and AI. AI is exactly what it states, Artificial Intelligence. To us, true AI is consciousness — robots that actually think for themselves. This is still a very long way away, but may be inevitable.

What we spend much more brainpower on is Intelligence Augmentation. We think IA is a better term to use at the moment, to truly differentiate between smart algorithms and artificial intelligence. What we’re talking about is smart algorithms — problem solving operations and processes. We’re already using smart algorithms in things like wealth management and in autonomous vehicles to solve problems and make decisions while on the road delivering people or goods to specific destinations. Beyond blue collar jobs, IA will impact white collar jobs like data science, trading, law, and beyond. Today, you have companies like Ayasdi that are making massive advancements in machine learning and intelligence augmentation. They are eliminating entire back office sections of banks and healthcare companies. For example, in some banks you’ll have hundreds of quants sitting in a room working for years to develop a trading or risk algorithm based on a hypothesis they piece together after analyzing very large volumes of data. Now, that can all be done through sophisticated machine learning platforms like Ayasdi. These are eliminating and repurposing jobs of very well educated people. How will these jobs be repositioned? What will be the next big job creator, if any? Will the 4-hour work week be a standard vs. a self motivated lifestyle choice? Will lawyers simply be smart contract coders in the next decade? Is that better?

3. Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies, and Cryptography

Since Satoshi Nakamoto released the white paper called “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” in 2008, which led to the development of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, the world of blockchain has rapidly evolved. Solving the “double spend” problem so that value can be uniquely and provably transferred (not copied) over the internet allowed us to truly achieve the concept of digital cash.

It used to be that we would send information around the internet, and mostly we were just sending copies of that information around. There really was no way of creating an inherent uniqueness to a digital asset until blockchain rolled around. People have been developing and researching consensus protocols, new forms of cryptography, and decentralized systems for decades. But this single achievement in solving the double-spend problem gave way to a whole new kind of connective technology that’s only just now coming to fruition. Some in the world of blockchain suggest that it’s “What the internet should have been”. Ultimately, it’s a mechanism that will allow many of the technological advancements we’ve been reading about to come to life. It creates a layer of machine trust that software applications and hardware devices can use to execute their processes with each other and verify them without a third party. Will Douglas North see yet another evolution of his new institutional economic theory?

To be clear, Bettina and I are not engineers by any stretch of the imagination. We value technology adoption and the lifestyle changes it affords us. But, both of us wandered into blockchain through a non-technical lens. Sure Bitcoin is interesting, and currently the largest and most secure blockchain network, but with some of the new advancements initiated by the Ethereum Foundation and others, we’ve now created a blockchain network that functions more like a global virtual machine. A global decentralized computer, if you will. And like any computer, you can build apps on it. These innovations are moving very quickly and growing in adoption. Just look at Bitcoin, which has over $10Billion in market value and a trading volume in the range 7–10 Million trades per day, up from only a few million per day one year ago. If all this can happen in only a few short years, imagine what will happen over the course of the next two presidential terms.

In fact, if you look deeper into the world of blockchain you start realizing that we’re moving towards a future based on an internet of blockchains — a web of interconnected public chains, special purpose chains, private chains, and so on. What tends to excite us (and most large companies we do consulting for) are the implications of what blockchain will afford us at the governance and compliance layer. Blockchain is a massive victory in the future of governance and compliance — it’s a fantastic solution for attestation of authenticity, notary, provenance, asset tracking, back to birth traceability, and our governments need to embrace what’s coming here so that we can begin to experience true governance innovation. Many large fortune 500 companies are excited about this particular aspect of blockchain. If you’re a massive pharmaceutical company, compliance automation and management is part of your competitive advantage — and yet, this has historically been hard to iterate on. Now, with blockchain, you’ll be able to tackle compliance innovation as though you were just building another app. For many years we have been unable to truly innovate at this level, since we had no technological governance layer or government as a protocol, so blockchain provides a really unique opportunity to build a new governance framework — perhaps one that allows for more agile software development.

How government and politics can benefit

Clearly, we have a lot of important decisions to make over the course of the next decade. In particular, we are going to have to grapple with significant advancements in technology. Drones, commercial space programs, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, autonomous vehicles, smart algorithms, and gene editing are rapidly transitioning from the innovation pipeline to the real world. These advances are no longer science fiction, and our government is nowhere near ready to understand and process the impact these technologies will have on society. We need to move beyond the gridlock of our current cumbersome governance structure and into a process for global governance innovation. We need a governance framework that is as agile as software development.

That leads us to the second reason why the intersection of politics and technology matters: we can innovate in the world of governance itself. Many of you feel like the current political system is broken, or that your voice and vote don’t really matter. In many ways, you’re absolutely right. It’s not that the act of voting doesn’t matter, but unfortunately the mathematical game of electoral victory is a game of money and influence. Over $5Billion will have been spent this year trying to influence your vote in the US presidential election. That’s more than Proctor & Gamble — the world’s largest advertiser — spends in an entire year to market some of the world’s most popular consumer brands. That’s just insane.

Those in the business of politics know that there are certain places that matter more than others. They look state by state, district by district, and precinct by precinct. Get Out The Vote efforts are data-driven and targeted. It’s the way the system is designed. The popular vote only matters if it offers a popular “mandate.” The electoral college determines the electoral outcome, and is itself gamed through efforts like redistricting. The political parties are no longer beacons of agenda, and creating a new one requires an extraordinarily difficult process. Only 57Million people voted in the 2016 primary, which represents 28% of eligible voters, of which only a small fraction ended up voting for the candidate that would move on to be our general election candidate and then ultimately president. So altogether maybe 10% of the entire eligible voting population actually chose the current president from the beginning, a staggeringly small number.

While voting is a privilege of democracy, our voice feels much less democratic — stronger if we live in swing states or primary states where votes actually do matter; places like Florida, Pennsylvania, and the 2nd district of Maine. Lump these factors together, and it feels daunting to try to influence the political process or candidacy of a president. But influencing the framework is possible.

Many people are working on how to conceive of governance structures that help us handle the global challenges we will collectively face. Technology groups like Loomio.org, Democracy Earth, and others have been taking the power of technology to the challenges of political deliberation and collective action. Countries like Estonia have digitized their governments to a much greater degree than previously imagined. Technology elites like the author Don Tapscott are working to reconsider the social contract itself. In some ways, the technologies being built today can be part of the solution for changing the conversation away from campaigns and get people to start talking about the future.

How do we get there?

We aren’t here to frighten you post-election. If anything, we’re excited and inspired by all the different opportunities that lie ahead, especially in these three innovation spaces. However, some things are going to need to change dramatically. We need a new breed of political entrepreneur. Individuals who can understand where we are and where we need to go, and can ultimately help shape a vision that society can get behind and participate in.

We wish that we had a singular activity or call to action that would allow those of you reading this to do something to get started and help our democracy prepare for a future of greater and faster technology. But unfortunately, we don’t. Our humble goal is to keep the conversation going — not just influence you “once every four years, but 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” as our friend Eric Ries of The Lean Startup, has said. The election may be over, but the conversation about our future, and the role of technology, should just be beginning.

There are hundreds of ways to rethink and rework our democracy for a new age. What are your ideas? How can you join and support the conversation? Let everyone know. That’s probably the most important CTA you can address right now — then we’ll start working on what’s next.