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Your Move, California: framing the US agenda for the 21st century

Enjoy my latest op-ed, which appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Please send your comments to the Chronicle (link below).

Your move, California: framing the US agenda for the 21st century

By Nigel M. de S. Cameron

When Gov. Jerry Brown hit the headlines with “California will launch its own damn satellite,” he struck more gold than he may have realized. Now ranked the world’s sixth-largest economy, the Golden State is uniquely placed to offer much broader leadership than simple push-back against the incoming administration’s take on climate science.

What’s more, it will be a shame if mere anti-Trump partisanship overshadows a larger opportunity. America desperately needs future-minded leadership. What does the future hold? How should we prepare? Those are questions on which Washington – Trump and anti-Trump, GOP and Democrat, left, right and center – continues to manifest overwhelming indifference.

Without exception, the presidential candidates and their themes were locked into the questions and opportunities of the past.

We need leaders who can yank our attention on the future; that’s America’s single most pressing concern. And while the departing Obama administration hired smart individuals from Silicon Valley and convened high-sounding advisory councils of technology executives, their impact on the culture of government has been depressingly limited. The vast hack of the clunky Office of Personnel Management proved that. Their impact on the framing of the questions of our national political life has been precisely zero.

All that California – the state that hosts the world’s technology epicenter, has more university firepower than any other, and is home to the cultural colossus of Hollywood – needs to do is to frame the questions that really matter. And make legislative and regulatory moves reflecting a future-oriented agenda that will set an example for every other jurisdiction, including the federal.

Let’s take three examples of framing conversations with profound consequences:

Risk: Instead of telling climate deniers they are stupid and bad, they need to be asked to consider the risk implications if climate science is correct. The World Health Organization has warned that the era of antibiotics may be over. If that’s true, the prospect is at least as bad for the human race as the worst climate-change scenarios.

What about the risk of artificial intelligence going rogue? Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have signed on to that scenario. Let California convene a broad-based risk conversation, building context around our policy choices.

Security: The news that Yahoo was the victim of a record-shattering 1-billion-account hack has left most of us shrugging our shoulders: These things just keep happening. But, like the Washington hack of millions of federal personnel records, it demonstrates how fragile our technology has made us. The next time the Russians, or the Chinese, or some stand-alone “bad actor” in a basement, goes in for the kill, it really could be the kill. Not info, but lives.

The chief information security officer of any organization – government or corporate – is now the single-most important person. The security of data is the core of any business, and the key to the safety of its customers. The security officer needs to report to the chairman/CEO/governor (starting with California’s), and we must begin adapting our budgets and policies accordingly.

Jobs: Perhaps the most bizarre feature of the presidential campaign was the idea that bad trade deals and corporate off-shoring are the big job-killers. Yet from John Maynard Keynes (the most influential economist of the past century) to Larry Summers, and even Bill Gates, very smart voices have been warning that the truly huge threat to jobs will come from technology.

How do we handle that risk without becoming Luddites and smashing the machines? Well, we begin by convening parties and starting to build consensus. It was Gates who said that governments will soon be pleading with companies to employ people rather than machines. California is uniquely placed to lead this conversation.

Though the immediate context is federal, the opportunity is global. Despite the size of its economy, California can’t join the the Group of Seven. But it can build on Silicon Valley’s global leadership to craft a future-minded understanding of policy and people that could lead the nation, and be heard by the world.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron is the founder and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. He is the author of “Will Robots Take Your Job? A Plea for Consensus.”(Polity/Wiley, forthcoming in May). To comment, submit your letter to the editor at