Mark Zuckerberg at the joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing on the company’s protection of user dataLeah Millis / Reuters

The arc of innovative progress has reached an inflection point. Recent technological change that has brought immeasurable improvements to billions around the globe now threatens to overwhelm us. Making this disruption positive for all is the chief challenge of our time. We ourselves—not only market forces—should bend the arc of change toward human good. To do so, we must reinvigorate an ethos of public purpose that has become dangerously decoupled from many of today’s leading tech endeavors.

Public purpose was once central to innovation. My mentors in the field of subatomic physics hailed from the Manhattan Project. This generation stressed that along with the ability to make great change came great responsibility. They were proud to have created nuclear weapons that helped end World War II and deterred a third world war. But this disruptive technology posed an existential danger, so many of these scientists also devoted themselves to arms control, missile defense, nonproliferation, and other efforts to make the nuclear revolution safer. This is the ethic that drew me to work in national security.

Today we face similarly game-changing technological advances in three big categories: digital, biotech, and jobs and training. But it’s not clear that tech leaders today have the same experience of fierce commitment to align technology with public purpose. How, then, can we set the conditions for today’s disruptive changes to redound to the overall good of humankind?

The right conditions and decisions will not emerge without strong input from technologists themselves. I valued this input greatly when I was secretary of defense. It’s why I founded the Defense Digital Service, the Defense Innovative Unit-Experimental (DIU-X) in Silicon Valley, and the Defense Innovation Board, which included senior leaders such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, and Jen Pahlka. Despite the Snowden hangover, I found a hunger among most technologists to be part of something bigger than themselves and their firms.

Unfortunately, there’s another ethos that’s hostile to this line of thinking. It is pervasive in digital tech and more prevalent perhaps among the generation that followed my mentors. This libertarian ethos is inherently distrustful of government and believes that public good and public purpose will somehow emerge through a popular and supposedly freer mechanism. This philosophy assumes that past major technological disruptions were weathered without accompanying changes in governance. But that’s not the case.

Take the farm-to-factory migration. Hundreds of millions of people altered their way of life when collective mechanized effort became the norm. Their lives were generally much better in the end, but this transition took decades to sort out. It fueled the rise of communism, exacerbated urban poverty, and in some places led to failed states. It was rocky.

The success of this first technical revolution was not automatic. In the United States, its sharp edges were rounded not by laws of technology or economics alone, but by the sweeping, deliberate changes brought about by what we now call the Progressive movement, which created the Food and Drug Administration, child-labor laws, compulsory public education, boards of public health, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, muckraking journalism, and labor unions, among other innovations. By establishing minimum standards of safety and trust, these reforms made impersonal, large-scale commerce possible. Our charge today is to create an analogous effort to leaven today’s disruptive change so we get the good with less of the bad. Nowhere is this need more acute than with regard to social media, artificial intelligence, and the biotech revolution.

Social media are wonderful enablers of commerce and community, but also of darkness, hatred, lies, and isolation; invasion of privacy; even attack. That’s why the congressional hearings with Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, earlier this year were so important. The public understood the stakes: Ninety-one percent of Americans, according to Pew, feel they’ve lost control of how their personal data are collected and used. The hearings were a chance to uncover the dilemmas and pave the road for solutions.

Instead, they laid an egg. They missed a historic opportunity to devise what everyone agreed is needed: a mix of self-regulation by tech companies and informed regulation by government. Zuckerberg gave an account of his company’s ethical conduct that sufficed for one news cycle, but will not suffice for the arc of history. As for the quality of the congressional questioning, all I can say is that I wish members had been as poorly prepared to question me on war and peace in the scores of testimonies I gave as they were when asking Facebook about the public duties of tech companies.

Managing today’s tech dilemmas will also take renewed government efforts to step in judiciously when the common good is at stake. The United States has a long history of communication and information system regulation, including through antitrust. Some economists argue that since Facebook and Google are free, consumers face no economic harm and thus the government has no antitrust authority, or that antitrust means breaking up companies. These views would be alien to Senator John Sherman, of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and Justices Louis Brandeis and William Douglas, who wrote early opinions concerning its enforcement. They repeatedly stressed that the government’s interest was in the general public good, and was not confined to price gouging.

The second major digital dilemma concerns artificial intelligence. At the Pentagon, I promulgated a directive on that subject. It stated that for every system capable of carrying out or assisting the use of lethal force, a human must be involved in the decision. In the Pentagon, we cannot avoid responsibility by declaring, “The machine made a mistake.” The same goes for the designers of a driverless vehicle that kills a pedestrian. AI designers must enable the tracing of decision methods for accountability in things that matter.

I am well aware of the concerns of some Google employees about working on Project Maven, an AI effort for the U.S. Department of Defense. These concerns are misplaced. First, the Pentagon is governed by the memorandum I wrote, and Maven is required to abide by it; our nation takes its values to the battlefield. Second, who better than tech-savvy Google employees to steer the Pentagon in the right direction? Third, are Google employees really more comfortable working in and for Communist China, where there is no separation from the People’s Liberation Army? Fourth, we are, after all, defending our fellow citizens and common values.

The skepticism over Project Maven reflects a larger wariness among the rising generation of technologists. While they hold a sincere desire to advance the public interest, they are sometimes uncertain whether partnering with government is consistent with that conviction. We can’t afford to be lukewarm or of mixed mind in this arena. But even as we rebuild long-term trust between the private and public sectors, more and more young innovators are recognizing that if they don’t step up, they might not like who does.

As transformative as digital disruption has been, the looming biosciences revolution—driven by recent dramatic breakthroughs in biological science and a new, higher-velocity investment climate—will be at least as consequential in coming decades.

One major avenue is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and the possibility of editing even the human genome. In addition to the obvious moral issues associated with tampering with life itself without any hope of the consent of the unborn, the wealthy could soon purchase a new kind of unequal opportunity that makes any previous form of discrimination pale in comparison.

A different innovative avenue is the growing capacity to create new kinds of designer cells. This could include novel pathogens with high lethality and flu-like ability to spread. But it extends to organisms and tissues custom-made for a wide range of purposes, which may be more or less benign.

All these innovations lead us to another avenue of disruptive potential: the union of the information revolution and the biological revolution. It is becoming quite possible, for example, to do a “big data” collection of a cell’s DNA, RNA, and protein inventory, not just on a sample basis from a single organism, but cell by cell within the organism.

Until recently, these biotech innovations sprang from laboratory techniques requiring Ph.D.-level talent and institutional scale. Today, however, they are becoming platforms on top of which amateurs can innovate. It is already possible to send off a DNA sample and get an entire sequence returned overnight by email (something that only recently took billions of dollars and years of effort). Forwarding that email to another overnight service returns an “interpretation” of the sample’s identity or health. Someone who knows nothing about the underlying science can exploit this platform to create novel applications. This potential is being turbocharged by the accessibility of bio incubators where young people can—at trivial cost—make use of laboratory equipment that costs millions of dollars. The scale and cost of meaningful innovation will go way down, and the speed of socially consequential innovation will go way up.

Meanwhile, the multibillion-dollar, decade-long investment cycle of traditional pharma will be supplemented by fast venture-capital money. These new investors may not have the culture or values of research scientists. And they may not share the norms and regulations that come with, for example, National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration funding and approvals. Like the early digital era, this Wild West climate portends both boom and bust.

The third tech-driven revolution of our time is in the future of work and training. Put starkly, unless our fellow citizens can see that in all this disruptive change there is a path for them and their children to the American dream or its equivalent, we will not have cohesive societies.

There are a lot of smart people at MIT and around Boston working on technologies such as lidar that make driverless cars possible. I always say to these people, “Save a little bit of your innovative energy for the following challenge: How about the carless driver? What is to become of the tens of thousands of truck, taxi, and car drivers whose jobs are disrupted?” For these drivers, this unstoppable transition will be like the farm-to-factory transition. We owe it to them to make sure it all comes out well.

From life-saving medicines to traffic-beating algorithms, the accelerating pace of innovation is already bringing great progress. But it would be foolish to let inertia set the agenda. We cannot have a functioning society if a substantial fraction of Americans see innovation as passing them by. What’s needed is a mix of tech-community expertise and public spirit working together. Such collaboration can create the conditions that make the coming disruptions not just tolerable but desirable.


This story was adapted from a Belfer Center report, “Shaping Disruptive Technological Change for Public Good.”

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