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Four things technologists the world over need to know about the next four years

AP/David Goldman
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s science projects are safe, for now.
By Christopher Mims
This article is more than 2 years old.

1. Immigration

America will double down on the its global brain drain, or at least try to.

When Mitt Romney and Barack Obama issued open letters vaguely outlining their technology platforms during this year’s race for the White House, the one desire they had in common was to make it easier for highly skilled tech workers to remain in or come to the US. There’s bipartisan support behind a Startup 2.0 Act, which does three things:

• Creates a new class of visa (the STEM visa) for foreign students who graduate with an advanced science or engineering degree from a US university allowing them to get green cards to stay in the US.

• Creates an entrepreneurs’ visa to let heads of startups stay in the country as long as their business hires American workers.

• Eliminates caps on how many immigrants can come from each country outside the US.

Despite support for the act on both ends of the political spectrum, it does not appear to be very high priority, and it’s not clear that it will make it into what have of late been very crowded sessions of Congress. Another obstacle is that Democrats want to tie passage of the act to broader immigration reform, which Republicans might block in the House and/or Senate.

Right now, US immigration rules are hostile enough to foreign-born high skilled workers that for the last few years, the percentage of startups formed by immigrants has been falling, especially in Silicon Valley. Considering that more than 40% of US Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants, if Congress and the Obama administration can’t get it together to pass something like Startup 2.0, this one policy could have a huge impact.

2. Energy R&D

The US will continue to pour money into new energy technologies, and they may someday power the world.

Nobel-prize winner Steven Chu has been making bets on experimental energy technologies ever since he was installed as Obama’s Secretary of Energy. After the 2011 Solyndra debacle (in which the solar-panel maker went broke after swallowing a $535 million government loan) unfairly tarred all investment in clean energy, it seemed like a Romney presidency might represent a step backward for investment in research.

But then it became clear that another thing Romney and Obama could agree on besides tech-worker visas was ongoing investment in the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, modeled on the far-out research of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is credited with having invented the internet.

With Obama back in the White House and a tax on carbon (or a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions) still a political impossibility, it appears that government grants for energy research aren’t just safe; they’re one of the only levers the administration has to pull in the quest for energy independence and decarbonization of America’s–and the world’s–energy systems.

3. Net neutrality

A fundamental tenet of the internet–that it should be free to send data from one computer to another–is safe, for now.

The wonky, often impenetrable debate over “net neutrality” can be set aside for four more years, though given the lobbying dollars telecom and entertainment companies are willing to put behind it, it’s never out of sight for long.

Fundamentally, the argument goes like this: Companies that build the networks that carry data to homes and businesses, such as telephone and cable firms, want to be able to charge their competitors to move data across those networks. For example, a cable company might want to stamp out competition from Netflix by charging the company to stream movies through the cable company’s data network.

If this sort of thing had come to pass (Romney was in favor of it), it would have been a dark day for innovation on the internet. As Nilay Patel, an editor at The Verge, noted, Romney’s promise to roll back FCC rules that protect net neutrality represented “a total failure to understand how the internet actually works — and how much control broadband service providers have over the future of millions of startups and small businesses. The best public policy directs a vibrant free market to act in the best interests of the public by properly aligning incentives; Romney would allow the broadband industry to be ruled by radically misaligned profit incentives that defy common sense.”

Net neutrality is viewed as a “second best” option in many countries outside the US, which require that network operators sell access to their underlying network.

4. Cyberwar

The age of cyber-warfare has dawned at last—or at least, lots of people have an interest in saying so.

Until 2010, cyberwar was mostly hypothetical. Then, it’s widely believed, the US and Israel collaborated to create Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malicious software that damaged Iran’s factories for enriching uranium to build a nuclear weapon. Now cyberwar is everywhere, at least in government rhetoric, with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warning that the US was headed for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” No matter who is in office, the amount of attention that cyberwar garners—with its promises of critical infrastructure shut down without anyone ever firing a shot—means it’s going to be addressed.

Security experts aren’t as sold as Panetta is on the threat of cyberwar, but, as with the cold war before it, fear has led countries all around the world to arm themselves for future battles in cyberspace. Some of the greatest threats will come from non-state actors like terrorists, ideologues and criminals.

The US is developing offensive cyberweapons, which will naturally lead to escalation as other countries seek to defend against or match these threats. A better solution might be to simply harden existing infrastructure against attacks, which is one reason the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (pdf) was drafted. It has yet to be passed by either house of Congress, mainly because it places the burden for hardening businesses infrastructure and networks on those businesses themselves. No matter: Obama may issue an executive order that businesses that maintain “critical” infrastructure have to secure it anyway.

As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of one of the world’s most renowned cyber security labs, told attendees of the 2012 ITU Telecom World conference in Dubai,

In the long run, cyber-warfare is where all parties lose: attackers, victims and even uninvolved observers. Unlike traditional weapons, tools used in cyber-warfare are very easy to clone and reprogram by adversaries. The most important move to survive in this environment is the development and deployment of a new, advanced security paradigm for the most critical infrastructure.

Of course, Kaspersky and everyone else in the cyber-security industry are precisely those who stand to gain from the construction of countless virtual Maginot Lines in cyberspace. John Slye, an analyst for the market intelligence firm GovWin, said that from 2011 to 2016, US Department of Defense spending on cybersecurity will increase from $4.4 billion to $6.7 billion, and civilian spending from $2.6 billion to $3.8 billion.

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