Building a better future's tough when you don't know where you're going
We need to develop a better understanding of advanced technology transitions if we're to realize the social and economic benefits of transformative tech like AI
Remember the perception-bending scenes in the movie Inception, where Elliot Page’s character learns they can warp the seeming-reality around them into something that defies the laws of physics? It sometimes feels like this is the world we’re inhabiting when it comes to navigating the ability of technologies like AI, quantum tech, gene editing, and others, to seemingly rewrite the rules of what is possible.
Navigating this emerging landscape around advanced technologies will be near-impossible without new understanding, tools, and mindsets — which is why there’s a growing urgency to support new research into advanced technology transitions.
This was the focus of comments I recently submitted to a Request for Information on developing a roadmap for the new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) at the National Science Foundation.
TIP and the CHIPS Act of 2022
The NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships was established in 2022 in response to the CHIPS Act of 2022. The CHIPS Act is focused on supporting the production of semiconductors the US (CHIPS stands for “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors”). But it also includes substantial provisions for growing a high-impact program of applied research. And this included the creation of the first new directorate in the US National Science Foundation in more than 30 years, with the mission of “advancing U.S. competitiveness through investments that accelerate the development of key technologies and address pressing societal and economic challenges.”
The CHIPS Act is a lengthy document. However, buried in it are specific provisions for the NSF to:
Support transformational advances in use-inspired and translational research and technology development (42 USC § 19102);
Encourage the translation of research into innovations, processes, and products (42 USC § 19102);
Identify social, behavioral, and economic drivers and consequences of technological innovations that could enable advances in areas that include artificial intelligence, high performance computing, quantum information science and technology, robotics and automation, immersive technologies, synthetic biology, advanced materials, and many others (42 USC § 19107); And
Engage experts in the social dimensions of science and technology and set up formal avenues for public input to ensure that ethical, legal, and societal considerations are taken into account in the priorities and activities of the new Directorate (42 USC § 19118).
This is a bold and far-reaching charge, and one that cannot be addressed through siloed research and conventional thinking. And so in my comments I focused on the importance of the new Directorate beginning to frame its roadmap in terms of advanced technology transitions.
My full submitted comments can be downloaded here. I’ve included a lightly edited version below though:
Advanced Technology Transitions as a conceptual crosscut for accelerating use-inspired research and practice in support of economically and societally beneficial innovation
As a nation, as well as globally, we are at a scientific and technological tipping point in human history, where the futures we are creating are on the cusp of departing in radical ways from past norms, trends, and expectations.
Advanced technologies, from quantum computing and generative AI to gene editing, next- generation materials, additive manufacturing, neurotechnology, and many more, are transforming what is possible in highly non-linear ways and at unprecedented rates. Emerging AI foundation models alone have seen the timescale associated with social disruption move from years to months, with the pace of disruption continuing to accelerate. At the same time, we are more interconnected, more resource-constrained, and more socially and environmentally precarious as a species, than at any previous point in history.
The result is a highly complex and convoluted dynamic between realizing the near-unimaginable possibilities that advanced technologies promise, and the challenges of avoiding potentially catastrophic economic, social, and environmental failures that are rooted in conventional thinking, naïve assumptions, siloed understanding, and limited approaches to beneficial and responsible innovation.
This is a dynamic that is increasingly veering toward potential failure modes that are not only insurmountable through conventional thinking but are obscured through established – and often outmoded – approaches to technology innovation.
As a result, successfully navigating increasingly transformative technology transitions will demand new thinking, new framings, new knowledge and insights, new philosophies, new perspectives, new skills, new jobs, and new organizational structures. It will also require new ways of collaborating across areas of expertise and understanding, domains of practice, and diverse communities and sectors. And it will depend on a new generation of leaders and innovators across public and private sectors with the knowledge, insights, skills, and vision, to steer these technology transitions toward more vibrant, promise-filled, and equitable futures.
Here, the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships has a unique opportunity to incorporate crosscutting initiatives into its 3-year roadmap that draw on the framing and concept of “Advanced Technology Transitions” to accelerate use-inspired research and the translation of research to practice in ways that lead to transformative societal and economic value creation, while navigating an increasingly complex societal, economic, environmental, and geopolitical landscape.
Advanced Technology Transitions represents a new approach to framing effective advanced technology development and use, and is one that would provide a differentiating and transformative crosscut within the TIP roadmap. While there is existing scholarship on technology transitions (defined here as theories, frameworks, and practices, that support and enable economically and societally beneficial development, adoption, and use, of emerging technological capabilities), much of this is focused on specific domains (such as energy transitions), or theories that are only loosely connected to practice. At present, an integrated, transdisciplinary, and use-inspired approach to advanced technology transitions is lacking. Nevertheless, past experiences with transformative technologies such as gene sequencing and editing, nanotechnology and, more recently, artificial intelligence, provide rich material for novel and impactful research while demonstrating the need for new and integrated ways of approaching successful technology transitions.
Here, there is a unique opportunity for the TIP roadmap to take a leadership role in developing research, understanding, frameworks, and processes, that will underpin the positive economic and societal benefits of emerging technologies.
If implemented, initiatives within the TIP roadmap would both develop generalizable understanding around advanced technology transitions that can be successfully applied to emerging and as-yet unidentified capabilities, while informing specific pathways to ensure the success of investments in areas such as AI, quantum technology, synthetic biology, and others. They would, through necessity, integrate scholarship across a wide range of academic disciplines (including the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities), as well as integrating expertise from entrepreneurs, innovators, businesses, policy makers, and civil society. They would also be grounded in use-inspired research, bring novel transdisciplinary approaches to bear on economically and societally beneficial translation, and synergistically integrate with other initiatives within the roadmap.
While crosscutting research initiatives focused on Advanced Technology Transitions will depend on the roadmap developed within the TIP, specific research domains may include, but are not limited to:
General theories of Advanced Technology Transitions and their application to complex and transformative emerging technologies and areas of technological convergence.
Failure modes, best practices, and emerging principles, associated with historic advanced technology transitions.
Models of advanced technology transitions within emerging complex sociotechnical systems that are informed by failure modes, best practices, and emerging principles, associated with historic advanced technology transitions.
Theory and practice of societally and economically beneficial and responsible innovation as applied to transformative advanced technology transitions.
The intersection of advanced technology transitions and Public Interest Technology.
Effective governance of advanced technology transitions, spanning the spectrum of public engagement, soft law, agile governance, hard-law regulation.
Advanced technology transitions, equity, and equality, including theories, models,
frameworks, and practices, that support equitable transitions.
Public engagement, democratic decision making, and advanced technology transitions.
Understanding and leveraging the arts and humanities as potential modulators of
advanced technology transitions.
The intersection of sustainable development and advanced technology transitions,
particularly at the intersection of challenges such as decarbonization and energy generation/storage/distribution, and emerging capabilities such as AI, advanced materials, and complex systems.
The ethical and responsible development and navigation of advanced technology transitions.
Novel theories, models, and approaches to risk in the context of advanced technology transitions.
Foresight theories and methodologies as applied to advanced technology transitions.
Misinformation, disinformation, and advanced technology transitions.
Advanced technology transitions and job loss/gain/displacement.
Critical and evolving knowledge and skills associated with advanced technology
transitions, together with responsive approaches to learning and education.