I have to admit that yesterday’s special “Final Frontiers” edition of Wired was a bit of a geek-out moment for me. President Obama was featured as the magazine’s guest editor, and gave a long interview with Wired’s Scott Dadich and MIT’s Joi Ito on all things technology and innovation. In an election season that has largely ignored these important issues, it was heartening to see President Obama discuss everything from artificial intelligence policy to his abiding love for Star Trek. What inspired me most, however, was this passage from the President’s guest-editor column, describing what he enjoyed most about the Gene Roddenberry classic:
What I loved about it was its optimism, the fundamental belief at its core that the people on this planet, for all our varied backgrounds and outward differences, could come together to build a better tomorrow.
I still believe that. I believe we can work together to do big things that raise the fortunes of people here at home and all over the world. And even if we’ve got some work left to do on faster-than-light travel, I still believe science and technology is the warp drive that accelerates that kind of change for everybody.
He goes on to discuss a range of emerging technology issues, and the need to “science the heck out of” the big challenges currently confronting humanity. The timing of the article coincided with the release of the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s comprehensive report on AI, which highlights a reasonable list of market-friendly, pro-innovation policy recommendations. Some people may be shocked to hear just how market-friendly the suggestions are. The President pretty aptly summed up the findings: “The way I’ve been thinking about the regulatory structure as AI emerges is that, early in a technology, a thousand flowers should bloom … The government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research.”
It’s not just AI that the President has been focused on. In the past few weeks, a flurry of op-eds by the soon-to-be former Commander-in-Chief have hit on issues such as autonomous vehicle deployments in Pittsburgh, interplanetary spaceflight, and the techno-centric, sustainable future. On top of that, The Washington Post recently reported that the President’s “true legacy may be something altogether different: the standing up of a commercial space industry that has ended the government’s monopoly on space.”
After Presidents leave office, they typically pursue passion projects that try to effect change through other channels. With the recent spat of his pro-technology, pro-innovation articles, along with this special Wired project, one wonders if President Obama’s object of affection, post-White House, will be promoting technology and innovation as a way of making the world a better place. That would be an appropriate focus for the President whose first campaign was so lauded for revolutionary campaigning through social media. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise, either, given the increasingly tech-focused agenda of the Democratic Party.
Of course, Presidential legacies are always a mixed bag. In an almost decade-long Administration fraught with visceral fights over the Affordable Care Act, an increasingly polarized and ineffective Congress, and the revelations of NSA spying made public by Edward Snowden, President Obama may not be remembered as the techno-optimist he is portrayed to be in the Wired interview. His recent op-eds nonetheless paint the picture of a man who, in the years to come, seems willing and excited to play a role in promoting science, technology, and an optimistic disposition towards progress to future generations of Americans. The President seems to think the future is bright indeed, and I agree. For those who are less certain, he offers some words of wisdom:
the next time you’re bombarded with over-the-top claims about how our country is doomed or the world is coming apart at the seams, brush off the cynics and fearmongers. Because the truth is, if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.