White House CTO talks innovation at CES

Chopra discusses spectrum, workforce and ways to clear bottlenecks

LAS VEGAS--U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra defined the Obama administration's three-part strategy for increasing innovation at a press briefing at the Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 7. According to Chopra, the plan is to:

  1. Create building blocks of innovation through research and development, continued investment in human capital, and development of a highly skilled workforce.
  2. Find ways to unlock the value of government information. Chopra cited as an example a plan to find a way to release the Agriculture Department's database of the most commonly eaten foods and use that nutritional information to create games for children between the ages of 9 and 13, when they are at the highest risk for childhood obesity. The Obama administration is considering ways to reward such initiatives.
  3. Develop an all-hands-on-deck approach to creating open data standards and smooth the sort of convolutions that make it difficult to track electronic health records. "Within 48 hours of a visit to the doctor or hospital, people should be able to get an electronic record," Chopra said.

He was joined by Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro, who said he has seen more innovation at CES this year than in the past 30 years, with a record number of new companies participating. Some of that might be a product of the recession. "Companies must innovate or die," he said, adding that the silver lining of the recession is that companies have to perform remarkably to survive.

Chopra called the energy at CES palpable and said he felt a new momentum in the air. He cited a videocast he had participated in earlier in the day with the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The city is building its version of the U.S. government's Data.gov project, called the London Datastore.

Shapiro said government is often a barrier to innovation because high taxes and regulations can make it difficult to start a business.

"At the end of the day, private industry creates innovation," Chopra agreed.

Shapiro also cited the Federal Communications Commission's spectrum restrictions as an example of government falling behind the times. Spectrum allocations were made 60 years ago, he said.

All options are on the table for allocating spectrum to support economic growth, Chopra said. Spectrum judgments take many years, but "we're seeing where the puck is headed," Chopra said, using a hockey metaphor. "Half the products in the show are Internet-enabled devices. Who would have thought the lock to your front door would be an Internet-enabled device?"

Shapiro also said government has not kept pace with the rest of the world in promoting free trade, nor has the nation's strict visa policy helped in attracting the finest technology minds from other countries. "We can't get people to come here from China, so they end up going to Germany," he said. U.S. tech companies shouldn't have to start a branch overseas just so they can hire skilled workers, he said. "People come here to go to school; why can't they stay?" he asked.

Government needs to tear down the bottlenecks that inhibit innovation, Chopra said. "We need to make the current system work better." One example of an attempt to ease a bottleneck is a program from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that alerts people via text message of status changes or other events in the visa process.

This month President Barack Obama has called for a summit of chief executive officers who will focus on ways to make government more innovative and effective, Chopra said.

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