February 2009

America's CTO: U.S. joins other global companies, 21st century

By Leah Jamieson

When we first heard President Barack Obama was upset when facing the prospect of giving up his Blackberry, we should have known technology would have a more visible presence in this presidential administration than in the past.

We should not have been surprised when the Obama administration announced it was creating a national chief technology officer (CTO) position.

When the CTO takes the reins on our technological future, there will be tremendous pressure-pressure to define the position, both in terms of the scope, what issues and departments the office will address,  and in matters of execution, what powers and authority it will wield.

These are details that will need resolution in practice; but at the core, the office should focus on collaboration and finding practical solutions for policy goals. The CTO's office should focus on translating grand ideas into reality, and answering the question: "How do we make this happen?"

The most important matter will be to determine what issue to address first.

The CTO will need to have a vision for what technology, engineering, mathematics, and the sciences mean, and the impact they can have on our local, national, and global communities. They should be constantly working toward leveraging the innovation engines within each field, for the betterment of humankind.

We should expect our nation's CTO to focus on how our country engages world-changing technologies to achieve our national goals. We should also expect our CTO to be in the heart of today's most critical political discussions, highlighting how global technology collaboration can and should be a part of addressing today's pressing issues.

Pursuing "innovative solutions" for pressing issues opens a wide area of responsibility from global sustainability and energy issues to the aging population, education, and healthcare.

This is no small job, and the nation's first CTO will surely find themselves at the crossroads of global affairs-where they will help raise our nation's technological voice and global awareness.

Education: The new administration's U.S. Economic Stimulus Plan has clearly identified a need to increase broadband access and high-speed data communications to more communities and schools nationwide. With such a defined goal set in place, the CTO's responsibility will be to assess and determine the broadband required to transform our nation's educational system by dramatically improving our quality of communications and eLearning initiatives.

Energy: Utilizing technology already available-including smart grids, digital sensors, and advanced intelligence-based analytics-we have the opportunity to manage the nation's utility network and power infrastructure better. Our nation's CTO will be tapped to provide innovative solutions to energy management and efficiencies; further lessening the impact of the U.S. in the worldwide energy and environmental problems.

Healthcare: Healthcare technology is an area where there are enormous opportunities for innovation, but it also sits at some of the most sensitive issues of technology, including technical and ethical issues of privacy, standards, and data management. More advanced collection and access of medical data can revolutionize how healthcare operates, but there are also necessary policies to protect privacy.

Economy: Both the private and public sectors have strong reliance on information systems for the daily operation of our economy. The CTO will have to take a sincere look at how to protect that infrastructure and make sure it is capable of managing the financial existence of our economy. Is it a robust enough infrastructure to really carry the U.S. economy on its shoulders? If not, what needs correction, and how do you build it and secure it?

These issues are certainly challenging, but not insurmountable. This is an exciting time for our country and the incoming CTO, as innovation driven by technology, engineering, math, and science will aid in the development of new patents, thinking, and competition. We are primed to innovate out of a recession and through global collaboration, we can stimulate new investments to spur economic growth.


Leah Jamieson (ljamieson@somewhere.edu) has degrees in mathematics, engineering, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science. She was the 2007 IEEE President and is the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University.