White House Tells Tech Sector to Dream Big

The Office of Science and Technology Policy looks to strengthen the tech startup sector and capture the nation's imagination as it seeks ideas from the best and the brightest.

By Kenneth Corbin
Mon, November 12, 2012

CIO — WASHINGTON -- The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has a long list of areas where it is working to spur research and development and commercial investment, ranging from health IT and big data to robotics and nanotechnology, but perhaps none is more ambitious than what the office calls "grand challenges."

"Part of our problem is in China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In the United States, Britney Spears is Britney Spears."

Inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to land an astronaut to the moon, the OSTP is challenging industry members and government agencies, academics and philanthropic organizations to dream big and imagine ways to harness technology to solve some of the country's most pressing problems.

"We are pitchable," Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the OSTP, said in remarks here at the Reboot America Summit, a conference focused on startups and policy challenges in the nation's capital.

Kalil cited Google's project to develop driverless cars, noting that the company built on work conducted under a program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a group that was instrumental in the early development of the Internet.

Similarly, he called attention to the work that IBM has been doing in artificial intelligence, creating supercomputers that have defeated chess great Garry Kasparov and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, splashy exhibits designed in part as proof-of-concept for technology that ultimately could be applied to real-world challenges like health care or energy.

[Related: White House Offers 'We The People' Petition App Under Open Source License]

Other examples Kalil cited included PayPal cofounder Elon Musk's latest venture, the aerospace company SpaceX, and the sequencing of the human genome, once a forbidding challenge that involved inordinate time and expense, but that has become far simpler thanks to the abundance of low-cost computing power.

"The cost of genome sequencing has been falling by a factor of 12," Kalil said, adding that that pace was "kicking Moore's law's ass."

The administration's work promoting technology to address so-called grand challenges builds on previous outreach efforts to court the business and startup communities and build collaborative partnerships with the private sector.

White Urges Tech Innovation

Last January, the White House convened business and philanthropic leaders to unveil the Startup America Partnership, a campaign to help incubate and launch innovative startup businesses that has drawn on funding commitments from some of the biggest names in tech, including Facebook, HP and Intel. Startup America is chaired by AOL co-founder Steve Case.

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