Trump Meets Tech Leaders

President-elect Trump’s meeting with tech leaders made the news, but nobody had any details. The press pool was admitted for opening remarks and photos but quickly ushered out. Attendees included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Scmidt, , Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, among others. Also present were the Mike Pence, the Trump children, and Wilbur Ross. The meeting lasted two hours and was off the record.

Details are Scarce

This quote from the New York Times is about all we know of the meeting:

“This is a truly amazing group of people,” the president-elect said on Wednesday in a 25th-floor conference room at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The gathering included Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Elon Musk of Tesla; Timothy D. Cook of Apple; Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook; Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, Google’s parent company; and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, among others. “I’m here to help you folks do well,” Mr. Trump said.

Probably, the two hour long discussion concerned issues like trade, repatriation of overseas assets, the H1B visa program, cybersecurity, and job creation. Business leaders at the CEO level are not necessarily as involved in their day-to-day details as they might be, so the knowledge gap between the invitees and the president-elect may not be as vast as some of us probably believe.

My overall impression – which is just a guess – is that the incoming president realizes that tech has a lot to do with job creation and investment, so he wants the industry on his side. There were indications that he told the Silicon Valley crowd to call him any time. That sort of thing just invites lobbying, but it’s clearly a show of respect.

A Broader Circle

But the meeting suggests that Trump doesn’t want to repeat one of the mistakes his predecessor made. The Obama administration is very fond of tech and would have liked to leave a legacy of consistent support for innovation. This was not to be because this administration confined its tech interactions to a very small circle.

This was most evident in the development of the PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report on spectrum sharing. The report offered a brand-new paradigm of sharing spectrum between government, commerce, and personal uses, but failed to develop its recommendations at a level of detail that enables practical implementation.

The shortcomings in the PCAST report are widely acknowledged to flow from the fact that Google CEO Eric Schmidt directed its content. Schmidt’s a bright man, but he’s not a spectrum maven. And Google’s ideas about spectrum are not reflective of any larger public interest or in sync with spectrum engineering. He doesn’t appreciate the value of flexible use licenses, for example.

There are literally hundreds of former Googlers in federal jobs right now, but very few people from other Silicon Valley companies. This scenario leads to capture, but with any luck it won’t be the norm during the next administration.

Top Issues for the New Administration

Most tech leaders will probably agree that access to resources, the freedom to innovate, and access to markets are their top issues. Resources includes talent, capital, and vital inputs such as spectrum and hardware. Access to markets includes both domestic and foreign as well as both commercial and government sectors.

The freedom to innovate probably has the most fluid definition. While Google regards creative works and spectrum as common pool inputs that it should be able to get for free, creative industries and network services providers prefer to be paid for their work. All companies want low cost inputs and costly outputs, but most are realistic enough to see that this ideal isn’t scalable. Instead of tech policy that enables only Google, Netflix, and Facebook to do well, we need one that enables the entire sector to succeed.

One way to do this to have a define a loose national tech policy that simply emphasizes putting  more technology in more places. While this sounds like “tech for its own sake”, that’s not really a bad thing.

Proliferation Makes Tech Better

The Internet of Things is, after all, simply embedding information technology in everyday objects. There’s very little benefit in many IoT devices today; a light switch controlled by Amazon Echo isn’t that much better than its (lower cost) manual predecessor.

But as more devices get smarter, the benefits are easier to see: we save money by not illuminating empty rooms, dark rooms light up even when our hands are free or dirty, light levels reflect ambient light and mood, heating and cooling systems adapt to occupancy, and safety and security systems summon help when it’s needed. When we’re on vacation, our houses can be made to look like they’re occupied if burglars need to be discouraged.

The best thing about proliferation as a goal is that it stimulates employment in a way that other goals – such as increasing efficiency – may not. The current bubble in mobile apps has been bad for employment because it doesn’t have the hardware gizmo aspect that previous bubbles have had. So the gizmo industry is suffering and there’s more anger against tech than it’s used to. One the nice features of augmented reality is the focus on making people more productive rather than giving jobs to computers.

Helping Tech Do Well

The relationship of government and tech necessarily goes both ways. The government wants jobs, economic growth, and tax revenues. Tech wants low costs, high productivity, and high profits. On the face of it, these are not irreconcilable ambitions. I suspect this point was made several times in several ways during Trump’s meeting with the titans of tech.

The fact that Trump – following the leadership of Peter Thiel – is currying favor with a larger circle of advisors and collaborators is a good sign. The Obama administration was captured by Google on spectrum policy, as noted. Google also strongly influenced the FCC’s decisions on net neutrality and set-top boxes, and left its strongest fingerprints on the privacy order, by far the most important thing the FCC did where Google’s financial interests as a advertiser were concerned.

The circle needs to be even larger, however. None of the attendees at this meeting represents the communication part of the tech industry but Cisco. Gadgets, semiconductors, and software are nice, but tech is also about systems, content, and networks. There are supposed to be additional meetings, so we can only assume these meetings will include the other large players.

For all the limitations, this was an excellent start to developing a more balanced tech policy than the one we’ve seen in recent years.

For a different take see Recode; for a very different one, see The Register.

UPDATE: Celebrity journalist Kara Swisher has some details, well worth reading.