Tech entrepreneur and civic activist Sean Parker joins Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) to discuss how a technologizing society can allow us to create jobs, foster new companies and industries and drive the economy forward for all.
Kirkpatrick: I am so pleased that we have Senator Deb Fischer, Republican, of Nebraska here joining us; Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, a Democrat, somebody who I’ve known for a long time; and Sean Parker, a friend of mine, a longtime innovator, a Facebook president, co-creator of Napster, now doing a number of interesting things, which we’ll hear about—aside from creating babies, which is very impressive.
Parker: Well I can’t be senator from the Internet.
Kirkpatrick: You could be. I would probably vote for you, actually.
So I didn’t even think of how to start. But I am so pleased—let me just continue on some of the theme of getting the right people together—that we have senators from both parties here onstage together talking about technology.
Booker: But we’re the two senators in the Senate that are not running for president.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, good for you. That’s fair enough. But I wouldn’t rule that out in the future, in your case in particular. But anyway, that’s another matter.
Fischer: Now I feel slighted.
Kirkpatrick: Well maybe you’re—I don’t know as much about you. I know him. But I’m not saying that would be a bad thing, by the way.
But what I think is great—and maybe Sean will forgive me to just quickly talk about this idea of you two being here together. You have introduced legislation together. You’re two relatively new senators who came into the Senate when we already had this paralysis, or the fear of paralysis, and certainly gridlock was on your mind.
Anyway, it is just so exciting that it’s even possible. I mean frankly, from the perspective of New York, it’s almost like, “Oh really, they could’ve introduced legislation together?” How rare is it—how likely is it that we’ll see more of it, and is it technology in particular that has brought you together? Please, either one of you.
Fischer: I feel we’re just really fortunate to work together. And Cory and I are on Commerce Committee. We serve on the Surface Transportation Subcommittee together. I chair it, he’s ranking member. We’re always looking for ways that we can try and reach across the aisle. He’s just been a great partner to have.
I think that will continue. It happens in the Senate. You don’t hear about it.
Kirkpatrick: No, you don’t.
Fischer: But it happens all the time. It happens all the time. And I think it’s on issues maybe that the general public or the media doesn’t focus on, and so the public doesn’t hear how we are able to come together, work together on important issues, develop trust. We like each other—well, I like him. But I think we like each other. And it helps us to develop that relationship so hopefully we can move to some of those more contentious issues and work together on those in the future.
Booker: You know, it’s just this convenient narrative that we’ve all surrendered to. It’s a cynical narrative that we’ve surrendered to that nothing gets done in Washington, that it’s broken. And granted, there are big issues, and there is a divide that needs us to come together on. But the wonderful thing about Senator Fischer is that, you know, as I’ve gotten to know her, I see more and more common ground. She said we both chair a subcommittee together that’s really important, surface transportation, at a time that we have a lot of real issues. We’ve inherited the best infrastructure on the planet Earth from our grandparents and now it’s not in the greatest condition.
But what I’ve found that I love about Senator Fischer is that she is a technologist in the way that she looks at the world, in the sense that—I still remember hearing that she likes things like, hey, if you’re going to do well in certain areas, you need things like—surprise, surprise—regulatory certainty. You need to be able to create maximum efficiency. You need things like data transparency. So when I see things like that coming from her, I’m like, wait a minute. This is somebody that, given her values, we may not always agree on tactics—but we’re trying to get to the same place and we come with the same perspective. So she and I partner together on surface transportation. The potential for us transforming surface transportation in America is mindboggling, if you start thinking about the potential for drones to take traffic off of our roads, or autonomous cars. And so we’ve partnered on writing letters regarding autonomous cars. We’ve partnered on the Internet of Things, both of us recognizing that this is going to be a potentially transformative technological thrust that can raise the quality of life, deal with poverty issues, advance our economy, create jobs.
And so while the world is arguing and paying attention to the epic debates that are going to be going on in the presidential election, you have two freshman senators who are saying, “Hey, wait a minute, there’s all this we agree on. Let’s see if we can push the bar in these areas.” Where most Americans can’t even think of what’s the “Republican view of technology” and the “Democratic view”—because there’s really none—we’re looking for a lot of the same ends.
Kirkpatrick: That could be a good thing, because maybe we really could see some collegiality at the national level. I mean you’ve also both worked on broadband, not so much with a joint bill, but I know it’s an issue of concern to both of you.
Booker: And can I just real quick—because the guy to my right, who is a friend of mine as well, but what I love about his approach is that—and this is why a lot of people want to point to Washington as the problem. But I always say for any major problem, look in the mirror, because you’re participating in it in some way. I was on the Internet today, on my Facebook platform, and seeing the reflexively partisan stuff that’s just thrown out there. Washington at the end of the day is a reflection of who we are. And so when I meet a guy like Sean, who isn’t interested in coming to Washington—as we both know people do and say, “I’m just going to give money to one party. I’m just going to lobby for what my interests are”—but really coming with this idea that, “Hey, nothing is going to change unless I try to bring people together myself to have relationships on both sides of the aisle.” I’m proud to say you’re one of a small handful of people in Silicon Valley who give campaign contributions to both sides of the aisle. But more importantly, you’ve now started an organization here that is looking for bipartisan solutions to some of the bigger issues, and for that I really respect and thank you.
Parker: Thank you.
Kirkpatrick: Great setup for Sean. And we started the day with Steve Case in the opening session, who’s another very bipartisan thinker from tech. But since he set you right up, what are you doing with the Economic Innovation Group, Sean?
Parker: Well, I’ll respond to Cory’s point first and then move on to that. So it’s interesting, I didn’t set out necessarily to be a bipartisan donor. I set out to try to figure out, “Are there a set of things in Washington that everyone sort of tacitly agrees on but that don’t necessarily get discussed?” Because they’re not wedge issues, they’re not highly politicized issues, there’s no giant organized opposition trying to stop it. And the more you look, the more you realize these things do exist. They’re out there. People want to work on them. Some of them are getting done. They just don’t make headlines because maybe they’re too wonky or they’re not part of some kind of political narrative that we’re all plugged into.
And so the thinking going into starting EIG was, you know, is there an opening where we can help find and catalyze a few key legislative ideas around a few key kind of bigger picture ideas that just are not—they’re lost in the debate. They’re not being discussed, maybe because they’re novel ideas, maybe because they’re old ideas that need to be polished and sent back. And as I went through that process, I realized that there actually is a lot of common ground. I ended up collaborating, becoming really good friends with, and ultimately wanting to support people on both sides of the aisle. And at the end of that process, which was like sort of a three-year process of learning and education on my part, people started to say things like, “You’re one of the only bipartisan donors.” And you look at the top donors in America and I’m probably one of the few that’s 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to agree with every person I support on every issue, but I don’t agree with every person I meet, you know, in my day to day interactions on every issue. And you get this commentary that often comes from the press, and it often comes from even your friends, which is like, “Oh, your approach to politics is totally crazy.” And my only response to that is actually, it seems rather sane. You know, why is it that I have to reflexively respond to these emotionally charged issues and make all of my decisions based on the most emotionally charged things, which is probably the worst things to be making decisions on.
Fischer: We’re a very diverse country. New Jersey is similar in some ways to Nebraska—
Booker: It’s basically the same state. You go to Nebraska or New Jersey, you’ve seen them.
Fischer: My legislative district was the size of New Jersey. But we have diversity in this country, and so of course we’re not going to agree on all the issues. States are different. Within a state there’s a lot of diversity as well, and we need to recognize that, no, you can’t agree all the time. You shouldn’t. But there are areas we can work on together, and I think that’s where Senator Booker and I are trying to. Our first hearing we had on the Surface Transportation Subcommittee, I invited three of our great businesses from Nebraska to be there, because it was about highways. So we had the truckers, we had Werner Trucking, we had Union Pacific, and we had Cabela’s, so we had a retailer there as well. And then Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, was there talking about financing.
But Senator Booker had a great conversation with my trucking guy from Werner Trucking, kind of going back and forth in a really respectful way, trying to get information. And then he came to see you a couple weeks later to try and really dig down into the issues that Senator Booker was asking questions about. I mean that’s the way we should be working in the Senate and should be working in Congress, instead of doing interrogations during public hearings for the TV cameras. You know, we’re supposed to be listening to the people that we invite to come before committees in order to get information from them.
So I think that set the tone, and hopefully that’s the way we’re going to continue.
Kirkpatrick: I get the feeling in a way that both of you have come to Washington to serve in the Senate with an attitude not dissimilar from the one Sean brings to his political activism. And that’s really kind of amazing to those of us who read the paper every day. It’s just such an honor to have you up here talking about this.
I wonder though, specifically in the case of the two of you, given that you have done a lot on tech-related issues—and we’ve spent the whole day talking about really how urgently we need to incorporate an understanding of technology-driven change for the national benefit, for economic progress, etc.—whether that recognition was sort of in your heads as you arrived, that you thought, “The country really has to move forward, we’ve got these ways to do it”—I mean how important, in your minds, is sort of using technology as a lever to really move forward in a time when we have had this division? I mean I’m not asking the question clearly, but I think you can figure out something to answer anyway.
Fischer: Well, we’ll see if I do.
Kirkpatrick: Go ahead.
Fischer: I came here to find solutions, and to work with my colleagues to do that. When I was in the Legislature, I handled some pretty big policy items and issues and didn’t hold a press conference. And so I think that’s my philosophy here as well. You know, I’m here to build relationships, trying to work on solutions, and you have to, again, build that trust. You have to show that you know something about the issue and that you’re able to be a good spokesperson on it, and be able to be trusted by your colleagues.
Kirkpatrick: But clearly by the time you two both arrived, the idea of gridlock was deeply entrenched already in the popular mind, right? So you must’ve come thinking, “Well, I really don’t want to be part of that if I don’t have to be.” Is that fair enough?
Fischer: I didn’t worry about the gridlock. I just figured I was going to come here and work. You know, that’s what I told Nebraskans: “Elect me and I’m going to go and work hard and try and find some opportunities out there where we can meet these challenges.” But, again, I think it’s that false narrative that’s out there: that we’re always fighting, we don’t get along. And there is some of that. There’s some of that going on, you know, now. We’ve got that happening. But, again, I think it’s just that narrative that the public hears all the time. And so I take it upon myself, when I’m back in the state, when I meet with Nebraskans here in Washington, I tell them that the Senate’s working, that we’re able to work together, that we find these different areas where we can look at getting things done. You know, technology is a great example.
Kirkpatrick: This is the narrative people want to hear, that’s for sure.
Fischer: But more of us need to talk about it.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Well I’m glad you’re here doing that.
Booker: Going into 2010, prior to 2010, you had various movements, like the Tea Party movement and you had sort of the quasi-leftist kind of Occupy Wall Street, and there was a general sentiment that Washington was—well, it’s not a new sentiment that Washington is dysfunctional, but it has reached a fever pitch, and there were a lot of people who just wanted to burn the place down. And as a result, a lot of new members were elected whose primary agenda was to keep their scoring aligned with one party or the other, and be as obstructionist as possible because there’s clearly nothing good that could come of Washington.
So that narrative was created, I think, because of the climate of 2010 and the years preceding it. It got a little better in 2012; 2014, it sort of went away and now I think the American public is recognizing the consequences of gridlock and obstructionism and wants to get back to governing.
So there’s a rare opening. You know, part of what got me so interested in engaging politically in the first place was feeling like something needs to be done about this dysfunction, and the best way to do that was to just start solving problems, and ultimately, trying to come up with things that weren’t part of that high profile sort of politically charged issue environment, where we could start to make incremental progress with the two parties working together.
Kirkpatrick: But Sean, you are a technologist. As I wrote once about you, you were picked up by the police for hacking as a teenager and all that. You are a hacker. You know, you’ve spent your career enmeshed in all this really amazing transformative stuff—
Booker: He’s basically a juvenile delinquent felon.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. But the question is—you know, bring technology into this for us a little bit. I mean you work closely with Peter Thiel. You think about this stuff all the time. You’ve been deeply involved in creating the Facebook that we see today, not to mention a bunch of other stuff. You’ve got companies you’ve started that aim to use technology in government. But when you look at these issues of political progress and economic growth and the challenges, how do you incorporate your understanding of technology into that whole set of opportunities?
Parker: Well, I mean, I think there’s sort of two points here. One is that technology leads in terms of transforming society, and government and politics usually have to play catch-up. And so the industries that have done really well—and this kind of sounds like a conservative talking point, but it’s not—they’re unregulated industries like the Internet, where there was initially no regulation. I mean, it was a completely open environment. You know, the founders of Facebook and Napster, and I can imagine Google and many other good friends of mine, they didn’t start these companies with teams of lawyers worrying about, “How do we comply with some set of regulations that”—you know, because they were in uncharted territory. And that is changing. So you’re now—the political world and government is being forced to play catch-up, and is starting to play with ways of regulating the Internet. So that is by itself interesting, and you want to make sure that the right set of trade-offs get made, because otherwise you can have a chilling effect and you can screw things up. That’s especially true in areas that I’ve been moving into more recently, like life sciences and biotech.
Booker: So let me just add to that, because that’s the point that I think is the larger point—
Kirkpatrick: You’ve been involved in tech quite a bit too, I know. Not like him, but—
Booker: No, but it’s been a driving force of my public life for the last decade or so. But I just want to give one more bit of attention to Senator Fischer, because I think that, as you were hitting her with those questions, what I’ve found refreshing about her is that that’s noise. All that partisan talk and stuff like that, what we watch on the 24-hour news cycle, it’s noise. I think why Nebraskans are lucky to have Senator Fischer is because—you know, I often say to young kids when I speak to them, you become what you focus on. And those people who are focused on that kind of politics are going to emulate that. But the business nature of how Senator Fischer approaches things is really refreshing to me. There’s none of that gratuitous politics. It’s, “Let me focus on delivering results.”
And to that I will now probably sound like the conservative—this is all making Senator Fischer gleeful right now. She’s going to run home, “I got them both!”
Fischer: First of all, I want to know what he wants. And secondly, welcome.
Booker: Just because I’m a vegan doesn’t mean I can’t butter you up.
Fischer: I’m a cattle rancher, by the way.
Booker: Yes, I know. That shows you—
Kirkpatrick: Are you really a vegan, Cory?
Booker: I am a vegan. If you can bring a vegan together with a cornhusking cattle rancher—
Kirkpatrick: That’s doubly ironic.
Fischer: I know. He needs to have a good Nebraska steak.
Booker: Yes, I watched that Iowa meeting, with all the pork that was being eaten out there.
Fischer: Oh my gosh, yes.
Booker: So my point though is this: We in this country are seriously in danger of going from the global dominant exporter of innovation and technology to losing that. And if you look at what’s happening in China, in Europe, in India, we used to see a huge influx of even those innovators coming here. So let me give you an example. We used to dominate the globe in R&D investment—public-private, so forget whatever mix your politics makes you more comfortable with. But you’re now seeing an outflow of VC dollars, outflow of investment. And what you said is so true—and this is what gets me animated. If the FAA was as they are now around the time that we innovated with air travel, they would’ve probably not allowed planes to get off the ground because they would’ve slapped them full of so many regulations.
And so now look at what’s happening with drone innovation globally right now. Our FAA is not even promulgating a regulatory framework that allows innovation in this space, so what are innovators doing? They’re going to other countries. Right now in places like France, they’re using drones to do mine surveys, saving time, saving money—
Kirkpatrick: Tons of agricultural work in France with drones too.
Booker: Fixing poles, saving lives and so on. But our regulatory framework right now isn’t allowing for innovation to thrive in this country. And so you have the FDA, the FAA, you have the transportation groups that we’re dealing with, that are constraining the kind of atmosphere for innovation that we need in this country. What we need to have is a bipartisan technology agenda for America that says we are going to do everything it takes—it means dealing with some of the bigger issues that are controversial, like the availability of H-1B visas and people that we know that now are parking their brains in other countries because they’re not able to bring them here, which, again, makes us lose innovation.
Parker: Well, especially if they were educated here.
Booker: Exactly. Stanford and others—NJIT [New Jersey Institute of Technology] in New Jersey, I’ve got to plug my great Jersey tech schools—will tell me that folks come in, we subsidize their education, the best minds on the globe, and then as soon as their student visas are over we kick them out of our country.
Kirkpatrick: We force them to leave, yes.
Booker: Right. So there are these big issues that are controversial—patent trolls and things like that—but there’s a whole bunch of issues, which Senator Fischer and I and others are starting to drill down on, that just say, Hey, wait a minute, something is seriously wrong in our country. Because we are now choking innovation as opposed to creating an environment where innovation can flourish.
And let me give you the best example of this, which you’ll find interesting. I come in, having come from a city hall where we began to realize the power of technology. You know, across the river, my dear friend Mike Bloomberg gave me the best advice in politics. I don’t know if you know this, but I’ll tell you this. Even though you’re in the other party, I’m going to share this nugget with you. Mike Bloomberg told me that before you become a mayor, become a billionaire. That is brilliant advice in politics. You should follow it.
Fischer: How’d that work?
Booker: You know, I decided to go my own way. Sean, you should think about that.
Kirkpatrick: Sean’s qualified.
Parker: I have said on the record I’m never running for office, for a lot of reasons.
Booker: You also told me one time you were never getting married, but look at you now. You have an incredible wife, kids, you’re a family man, leaving me behind.
Parker: I don’t think I ever said that.
Booker: I’m just teasing you. You never said that. But look at this, for example. Mike opens up datasets. Just by opening up government datasets, you fuel innovation. You can now go to any restaurant—maybe you don’t want to, but in New York you can get an app, go to any restaurant, and get all the health data. Why should that health data be the privy of government alone? So I come to the United States Senate and I’m like, wait a minute, the reason why we empower lobbyists in the Senate in the first place is because it’s so opaque you can’t get data. We literally, if you want documents from the Senate, they’re on a format that’s not readable, not XML. You have to get PDF files. And so imagine if we, just in the Senate, did what industry’s doing, what local governments are doing, opening up and making it more transparent. When you want to do some innovations on the web, it’s easy for you to find the best innovators to help you do it. The Senate, just to get certified as a vendor, it is such a difficult process that if she and I wanted to do something, we can’t select from the genius best minds. Yet there’s only two or three people that are even approved to do that. Government is not moving at the speed of innovation. In fact, we’re light years behind. In the Senate, we don’t even use cloud technology. The Department of Defense is in the cloud now, but we’re not even there yet.
So even within our own house we’re so far behind in terms of our ability to come together and empower residents. Because we’ve passed e-government. That was a decade or two ago. We’re now at we-government, where we’re finding ways to empower other people to partner with us, opening up datasets. What the public can do when they get their access to information, hold us accountable to push, advocate, and advance our society.
Kirkpatrick: When you’re saying “we are there,” you mean the public is there, but Congress is not there with them.
Booker: Government’s not. If you have an issue you care about, how are you going to even know what’s happening without calling a lobbyist to say, “Hey, can you check on this bill or check on this information?”
Kirkpatrick: Well, there’s also a lot of ground-level energy. I was talking earlier today about the Personal Democracy Forum, which I attended this week. There’s tremendous energy happening at the grassroots. In fact, Brigade, one of Sean’s companies, was one of the sponsors of that. There’s an enormous amount of civic and political activism happening from below, empowered by tech, that isn’t even really on the radar. But I love this idea of a national technology agenda, and I want to hear from the audience too. But, Sean, before we go to audience—
Booker: I forgot my second point, but that’s okay.
Kirkpatrick: You forgot to say it or you forgot what it was?
Booker: No, I literally forgot it. But ask another question.
Kirkpatrick: So national technology agenda, does that fit along—I mean we haven’t even talked about the Economic Innovation Group, which is something you’ve invented that is still a little hard for me to really get my head around because it’s been fairly quiet so far. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, but what about a national technology agenda, speaking as one of the great technologists of the country? Do you think we could get one?
Booker: Why are you limiting him to the country? The global—one of the great technologists of the globe.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, obviously. We know that. We know that.
Parker: I mean I think we’ve had phases of this over time, whether it’s been in life sciences or brain science, or, at various points in time, Internet deployment and broadband access. So I think there’s a precedent for having a national technology agenda of one kind or another. So in any given era—as mobile technology catches on, and the cloud catches on, and all these other things become a ubiquitous part of our life—we have to rethink that. I don’t have a specific proposal for what that should look like.
Kirkpatrick: Do you think EIG might work towards that kind of thing? I mean it’s devoted to building economic growth around consensus issues, right?
Parker: Right. EIG really got started around one or two core ideas that felt like they were going unaddressed and there really wasn’t a discussion, that had to do specifically with what you would call the “uneven economic recovery”—or, the fact that many parts of the country just haven’t benefited from the economic recovery since the crash. And there weren’t a lot of good ideas in the mix for fixing them. There were the typical ideas that had to do with just cutting taxes locally to try to attract businesses, and I don’t disagree with that. I think those are good ideas. But there wasn’t—one of the things that has to happen is we need to figure out how to build up, whether it’s manufacturing or life sciences and biotech-related jobs, whether those are research jobs or lab technicians. There’s a huge range of different jobs that we’re really good at. We’re actually the global leader in some of these things. We’re starting to lose that advantage.
The problem is, a lot of these things are very capital-intensive. You know, you take like automation, for instance. One of the best ways to compete—we think of robots either in some kind of 1960s science fiction version of robots or we think of robots as automation, as a tool of automation, and ultimately, as a thing that sort of steals jobs away from humans. But when you’re trying to compete in a global market, where there’s currency disparities and super low labor costs in China, the reality is that if we had larger factories that were capable of automating, we would be able to compete. We would be able to produce goods at a lower price, and those sort of automation factories and the people building the robots actually are very highly paid, high skill jobs.
So there are technology approaches to trying to bring things like manufacturing back to the US. There are technology approaches to making sure that we remain the world leader in life sciences research and in all biomedical research and treatment. I mean we have been that. We need to continue to be that. Some of that is continuing to expand or restoring NIH funding, some of it is making the FDA work more efficiently.
So there’s a whole series of interconnected things here, where a lot of it comes to just not screwing it up. You know, we are the leader. We need to sort of make sure that the policies that we put in place don’t screw that up. And EIG was created initially to tackle this idea of, you know, what do we do with distressed communities? How do we get capital to flow to distressed communities? How do we aggregate large amounts of private investor capital that’s willing to go to Detroit, for instance?
Booker: But I would just—you know, he’s been a great friend, but also a good mentor in spaces of technology, and I just wanted to just subtly change something you said. The urgency’s greater than that. We raced to the moon and led humanity away from the bounds of this planet and opened up; incredible technology and industry sprang from that space race. Well, we’re now losing the race to cure cancer—which will happen in our lifetime, I believe—to cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, all these things that you’ve sort of talked to me about in great detail, where we are racing in that. But where is that going to happen? Is that going to happen with American ingenuity, with American advancements, or are we going to continue to be hampered in this country—not only because of lack of resources, but lack of the kind of environment that produces that kind of innovation in the life sciences? Or is it going to happen in Europe, is it going to happen in China? And that’s what really worries me. We have the capacity to continue to lead with human breakthroughs in every field of endeavor, but we don’t have that sense of national urgency to stay ahead.
Parker: Unless we fix—I mean, not to laser focus on the life sciences thing, because I think, you know, some of these other issues are as important, but—if we don’t fix the FDA approval process, if we don’t fix that bureaucracy, 20 years from now we’re going to be going to China to buy drugs that are curative, that were tested in China, the clinical trial was run in China, for a 10th or even a 100th of the cost.
Booker: Or take the patent office, the backlogs in our patent office alone represent potentially billions of dollars’ worth of economic growth and economic potential. These, again, are continued examples of how our government regulatory regime could be holding back innovation, undermining America’s competitive—
Kirkpatrick: Onstage earlier today we had a drone from DJI, which is a Chinese company that dominates the drone industry. And it is, I think, quite likely that the fact that we’ve had such restrictive rules is what has prevented us from being the world leader.
Fischer: But that’s the issue. Technology moves fast, government moves slow. It’s designed to move slowly, except when it comes to regulation. And I think Congress has turned that over to the agencies, where regulation is. ou hear this all the time from Republicans, it’s so burdensome. It is. It is. When you have the FDA out there regulating health IT—that’s an issue that I’m interested in—you know, why do we have to have FDA approval on a Fitbit? It makes no sense at all on low risk health IT.
Kirkpatrick: So far we don’t though. We don’t have FDA approvals on Fitbits yet.
Booker: But 23andMe—
Kirkpatrick: They were stopped in their tracks.
Booker: They were stopped in their tracks and that’s ridiculous and unacceptable.
Kirkpatrick: Well, there was just a report from MIT this week, speaking of an innovation deficit in America, and they took four major recent global discoveries, innovations, none of which happened in the US. So it’s a problem.
I want to also mention that everyone here has received a book called “America’s Moment” that addresses a lot of these issues. I want to make sure all three of you get a copy of that book before we leave.
Audience, questions, comments?
Pesner: Jeremy Pesner, GSA. Sean, I’m going to forward this one to you. I’ve had the pleasure to meet Adam Conner and I’ve exchanged some emails with Matt Mahan. Can you tell us a little bit more about Brigade?
Parker: I can speak at a high level because over the next several weeks, we’re going to put some initial tools on the market. We’re taking a pretty slow roll kind of strategy with Brigade, where rather than launching it as a platform—I’m not a big believer in the idea that you can just throw a fully baked platform in the world and people will flock—
Kirkpatrick: But what’s it trying to do, first of all, Sean?
Parker: Well, I’m trying to sort of slightly dodge that. But I’ll give you—
Kirkpatrick: No, just, “Brigade is a company created to do…”
Parker: Okay. Organizing, right? Advocacy and organizing. I mean the 40,000-foot answer to that question is social media has done all kinds of things to connect us. We’ve always leveraged our social networks in order to build movements. Always. And we’ve done it in person—you know, it’s like Cesar Chavez organizing migrant farm workers by getting them together in a house. All of that has moved online. You know, our virtual space is where so much of our socialization happens, and it’s actually a more efficient, more powerful, and faster medium to get people organized.
So the organizing tools of the future that political campaigns will use, that political advocacy campaigns will use, those are going to take place online, but the underlying technology really hasn’t been built because you haven’t had people who are both organizers and campaign managers working together with people who are technologists to build something.
That being said, we’re going to roll out a series of tools over the next year. There’s roughly seven tools that we’ve built. The first of those tools will come in the next next 14 days. So you’ll start to see stuff coming out.
Kirkpatrick: That’s exciting. Great.
McCarthy: Shawn McCarthy, IDC Market Research, and I work for the government group. One of the arguments about why innovation may be slowing in America is the patent process. A couple of things, one is the overall cost of getting a patent, and the other is patent trolling. I’d love to hear what the group has to say about that.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you. Any strong opinions on that?
Booker: I mean I have strong opinions that we need to come to a compromise on patent troll legislation. Every day that we waste—you hear these ridiculous stories. I had folks from—I don’t want to name the companies, but they come to me and tell me these horror stories about—
Parker: Oh, I’ll name the companies.
Kirkpatrick: Is that something you two probably agree on pretty much, would you guess?
Fischer: We haven’t discussed it, but I would imagine we do.
Booker: Yes. I mean how could you have just a group of lawyers down in Texas who set up—
Fischer: Pick, pick, pick.
Booker: They’re not creating anything, they’re not inventing anything. They’re just going after innovators. And it has stopped so many companies in its tracks, it’s outrageous and unacceptable. But just as you mentioned, there are other things that we need to be doing to create a twenty-first century patent office. Because of the volume of patents, technology moving so quickly, we’ve got to get a government patent office that doesn’t restrict innovation and price out innovation from a lot of the innovators who are trying to do things in their garage, but just opens up the flow. And that should be definitely an area—
Parker: To make that really concrete, it might make sense to treat software patents somewhat different from the way we treat other patents—
Parker: Because software patents are generally really obvious ideas. It’s hard to write the code. It’s hard to build the team. It’s easy to write up a patent and submit it 20 years before it’s relevant, or 10 years before it’s relevant, and then wield that as a cudgel and beat companies into submission and extract hundreds of millions of dollars from companies, which are just—it’s just a tax of being in business and it’s something the software industry uniquely deals with.
Kirkpatrick: Most successful tech companies experience this.
Parker: Oh, once a week.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Brian?
Forde: Brian Forde, director of the digital currency initiative at the MIT Media Lab.
Kirkpatrick: And recently out of the White House also.
Forde: Yes, just left the White House. And so you’ve talked a lot about emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles and drones, but we haven’t talked about digital currency or bitcoin. And so one of the opportunities that’s out there is—and, you know, Senator Booker, you’ve famously lived off of SNAP for a week—is the delivery of social welfare through digital currency, pegged to the dollar so you avoid the currency risk. And what that could do is increase financial inclusion by getting those who are dependent on social welfare into the banking system and, two, eliminating or reducing significantly the amount of transaction costs that are associated with delivering that social welfare on prepaid cards. And so what would it take for the congressional branch to get excited about something like that?
Booker: I’d love to talk to you about it more. I haven’t thought that much about it.
Kirkpatrick: He is the guy to talk to.
Booker: Yes, and I’d be interested for my team to meet with you, and I’m sure Senator Fischer would be interested as well. The mini steps that we’ve taken in terms of innovating in the space where folks are disadvantaged have done a lot. Once you went to those cards, robberies went down a lot because people stopped getting jacked for the cash they might have open and available for theft.
So I just look at the data analysis as a way for us to do a lot of things better in that space. One area I’m interested in, and I know Sean is—we’ve talked about it ad nauseam—is just criminal justice reformed and using data a lot better than we’re using it now, and data predictability about what’s going on in prisons. We know now that 60-something-year-old nonviolent offenders in prisons are not that much of a threat to society anymore, but yet they’re costing us—especially their health care—is costing government a tremendous amount of money. So how can we start using data to begin to lower cost to taxpayers, raise levels of public safety—because that’s the first concern that we have—but then generate people back into being productive. And whether that’s what you’re seeing now with Nurse Family Partnership for at-risk pregnancies—I can go through it, the potential that data opens up and technology opens up into our success in those areas.
Kirkpatrick: Very exciting.
Fischer: I would say if you really want to get something done with government, don’t ask for a government study. You know, come with the information and present it to us, because we can study any idea to death.
Kirkpatrick: Present it to these two in particular, please.
Booker: Actually, to be frank with you, I would say in innovations like that, go to a mayor or go to a governor, because often they can enact pilot programs quicker than we can at the federal government.
Kirkland: Rik Kirkland from McKinsey. Other than your own bill, Senators, what’s the most important thing we could do to drive technology innovation in the US, in terms of a bill—you can give two, if you need more than one—and will it happen before the next election?
Fischer: Gosh, a technology bill? I think the most—I wouldn’t look at specific legislation. I think you need to get more members of Congress involved in the issue. You know, we’ve done the resolution on the Internet of Things with Senator [Kelly] Ayotte and Senator [Brian] Schatz. There’s so many issues out there that all of us have to focus on, through our own interests, through national interests, through state interests. I think it’s important for you to be able to expand the number of members who are interested in technology.
Kirkpatrick: Senator Fischer, a lot of people in your party are not very enthusiastic about expenditure on R&D at the federal level. How do you feel about that? Because that is something that a lot of people think we should double down more on, given what’s happening globally.
Fischer: Well, I think I disagree with you, first of all. I think members of my party are very interested in R&D. For example, we have the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, that’s on the floor of the Senate right now. There’s $400 million dollars in that to plan for the future, and it’s to look at new technologies, to look at lasers, to look at rail guns, dealing with defense. So there are any number of issues out there that Republicans focus on with R&D.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I hope that’s true. Okay.
Booker: I just want to give him my answer, because as an 18-month-old Senator, I still have that new Senate smell if you get close to me. I’m going to do everything I can to advance things, in partnership with really great Republicans. [John] Hoeven and I have some work on drones. You’ve heard what Senator Fischer and I are doing. [Marco] Rubio and I are doing stuff on spectrum—everything that I can advance. But I have surveyed the titans of the industry, like Sean, and everybody points to the number one issue being immigration reform. If I could wave a magic wand, I would make—I mean literally in Silicon Valley, you have people putting up billboards, “Can’t get your H-1B visa? Come to Australia. Come to Canada.” They’re poaching the best minds that would normally want to come to the United States to create companies. The data is unequivocally driving billions and billions of dollars more in economic growth, creating jobs and the like. So if you’re going to say my magic wand list, that would be at the top, number one.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, we’re going to take two more.
A1: So I’m going to put an additional thing that should be up there, which is education and practical—like whether you call it internships, or whether you call it apprenticeships. I mean I’d like to hear what public sector, what private sector, what can be done to—instead of trying to bring everybody in here, let’s get the local folks, people who might be marginalized right now, and let’s get them at the age of 10, 12, 13 in the classroom learning, and then get them somewhere where they can have a mentor and start a career.
Booker: So your question has your answer. First piece of legislation I did when I was in—it was with Senator Tim Scott, about apprenticeships. We’re getting our clock cleaned globally. If you look at what Germany’s doing, Canada’s doing, England’s doing, the percentage of their population going into apprenticeship programs to target those jobs—we have four million jobs in America right now that are not being filled. When I go around to manufacturers in my state and ask them what they need, I expect them to complain to me about health care, complain to me about taxes. The first thing they say is, “We can’t find machinists.” And so it’s outrageous that we don’t have in this country developed tracks for people who choose to go into that, to go where you can earn and learn at the same time and come out right in the middle class at desperately needed professions. All we need to do for the model is to look at what our competitors are doing and how they’re flying past us.
Hamlin: Hi, I’m Darold Hamlin with the Emerging Technology Consortium. One of the issues that I think needs to be addressed is the concentration of R&D dollars in specific institutions. Do you think that we could improve innovation if we could more fairly distribute the R&D dollars that are spent by the federal government?
Fischer: I haven’t looked into that, but I would assume the grants are made based on what the proposal is. So I can hear from my university that sometimes they feel that there’s certain institutions here on the East Coast that tend to draw a lot of the dollars and they seem to go to the same institutions as well. But you’d have to look at the entire program and how it’s handled.
I think it should be based on the proposal and the track record. I don’t believe that it should be equally divided among the states or communities. I think you have to reward excellence.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I love having innovators and policymakers at the same table and I hope we can do more of it. I love everything that all three of you have said. I hope we can hear more of it, here and elsewhere, together and apart.