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  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is exploring the ramifications of a number of emerging disruptive technologies. One common thread running through all of them is cyber. Credit: GAO file photo
     The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is exploring the ramifications of a number of emerging disruptive technologies. One common thread running through all of them is cyber. Credit: GAO file photo

A Cyber Thread Runs Through Government Future Assessments

October 1, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The office tasked with keeping Congress abreast of advances sees innovation emerging from several areas.

The future of U.S. technology, if the federal government has its way, likely will be cyber-heavy with innovative breakthroughs erupting from several areas, according to the office charged by Congress with assessing things to come. These areas include seemingly mundane concerns such as telecommunications and digital ledger capabilities, along with more advanced issues such as artificial intelligence and quantum systems.

Many of these disruptive technologies have policy ramifications either in their development or their implementation. The federal government must consider aspects such as regulatory issues, privacy, economic competitiveness and security requirements.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has a team dedicated to information technology and cybersecurity because of the ubiquity of cyber throughout key technology areas, says Tim Persons, chief scientist of the GAO and managing director of the Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics Team. His team focuses on a range of technologies as it prepares policymakers for decisions involving technologies.

“In this world, every headline issue we’re facing has a science and technology element,” Persons declares. “You can’t avoid it anymore. We are in a world of complex, adaptive, systems problems.”

Persons explains that the GAO’s aim goes beyond generating reports. “Our goal is to get that knowledge absorbed into the legislative branch. Our goal ultimately is greater wisdom for our decision makers,” he states.

The office’s technology work comes in three layers. The first layer explains, for the benefit of non-scientists who nonetheless are intelligent policymakers, what the technology is. The second layer is to describe technologies in a double-edged sword narrative that offers pros and cons. “There is an upside and a downside to every technology—every one,” Persons says, offering that this function by the GAO may be unique in government. The third layer is how to maximize the upsides and minimize the downsides. This entails providing policy options for decision makers based on their goals and “what could be done,” he says.

The GAO’s top scientific priority as directed by Congress is artificial intelligence (AI), Persons says. He relates that virtually every congressional committee or jurisdiction is affected by AI either directly or indirectly. Following its benchmark report in 2018, the office has been working with the National Academy of Medicine in a three-part series on AI for healthcare. The three parts focus on drug discovery and development, AI for medical services and AI for diagnostics.

Beyond medical concerns, AI is transformative across many domains, Persons notes. In the same way that modern home appliances transformed people’s lives, AI will eliminate rote and repetition in human behavior. The job market will see disruptions, and there will be pain, but AI’s effects will be far-reaching, he adds.

Another high priority is 5G technology. The GAO is working on several pieces in this area, Persons says. Digital ledger technologies such as blockchain may play a bigger and more powerful role in secure ledger transactions, so the GAO is exploring several aspects. One is what effect this capability will have on supply chain management or security, he notes.

With all the controversy over 5G and potential providers, Persons maintains that the GAO narrative on 5G should be viewed as a portfolio. The GAO’s efforts are complementary with the Defense Innovation Board and the Defense Science Board reports on the topic, he says. The office already has issued a report on spectrum management, especially in terms of U.S. competitiveness and spectrum allocation. Another piece focuses on national security issues, including Chinese market control and supply chain management. A technology report will be coming soon, he notes.

Persons allows that the GAO had been working on epidemiology before the COVID-19 outbreak. The office has been looking into disease-spread modeling and simulation, which is highly computational, he points out. Other elements include diagnostics and testing, along with vaccine research development.

Even with the GAO’s experience in epidemiology, the emergence of the coronavirus has redirected its work. Much of the work was completed before COVID-19 had fully invaded the country, and the GAO couldn’t pull it into the study. The office did find many solutions to the coronavirus onset in the ongoing work, and it just finished a report on data quality and considerations for modeling and analysis of COVID-19. This represents a deeper dive on that earlier work, Persons says.

Complementing its basic reports, the GAO has developed an entirely new product line called S&T Spotlights. They are two-page products, half of which are COVID-19 related. The coronavirus spotlights focused on topics such as vaccine development times, diagnostic testing issues and the actual definition of the virus itself.

These spotlights were generated in only about six weeks, Persons relates. By comparison, even small conventional GAO reports take about six months. And, when Congress passed the CARES Act to pump in more than $2 trillion, the GAO was given a broad degree of oversight over anything to do with coronavirus spending. GAO scientists are deeply involved with that, he notes.

GAO experts are looking at key elements of that, especially with regard to the future, Persons cites one issue. “What is preventing us from having a robust, timely, accurate public health surveillance system in an era when Google is a verb?” he asks. “How might we change our thinking so we stop being surprised?”

Another issue is the vaccine research and development system, particularly why scientists are still producing egg-yolk-based vaccines. Describing this as a 1940s technology, Persons points out that this era has seen the advent of 3D-printing and other advanced manufacturing and biotechnology capabilities. Vaccine production must be made more efficient, he declares.

Similar issues surround diagnostic testing. Persons states that, in this era of ubiquitous smartphones equipped or paired with a variety of sensors, the technology is available to establish more accurate, robust, cost-effective and rapid diagnostic systems.

Blockchain is another key technology focus area, and the GAO is taking its three-level approach to the capability’s future. The office is looking at how anything of value, such as deeds, may be transferred via blockchain. Services such as supply chain management offer great growth potential, as Eastern European nations already are allowing e-government blockchain functions to emerge. Ironically, one of the most technically savvy people on this topic is a congressman, and the GAO has tapped him as a resource, Persons notes.

Quantum information technologies also rank high on the GAO’s watch list. These include quantum computation, quantum communication and cryptography. The GAO cannot go into a deep dive on every bit of research into quantum, Persons notes. But the advanced research that the GAO can tap into include work by advanced institutions and Nobel Prize winners, he says. The commercial sector is rising in the quantum realm, and GAO experts likely will be placing increased emphasis on applied policies and determining where quantum is headed.

And alternate position, navigation and timing (PNT) is a discipline that is increasing in importance. The number of situations in which GPS can be jammed or denied is increasing, so the GAO is exploring options for an armed services client. Persons notes that this involves physical science and computer science.

Reports for policymakers on PNT are likely to focus more on technical options, he observes. These would entail alternate approaches if GPS is subtracted from operations in a contested environment.

While all of these focus areas involve different approaches to GAO studies, they share two things in common. One is that they are linked by cyber, either as a core competency or in a vital supporting role. The other aspect is that they will prove synergistic as they develop and mature.

“Each of these is a massive, disruptive technology,” he states. “What makes each even more powerful is their convergence.”

Persons predicts that the future holds even greater advances beyond what GAO assessments can foresee. “There is a lot in the life sciences area,” he posits, noting that researchers are just “scratching the surface” in synthetic biology, especially in gene editing techniques such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR. Potential impacts range from health care to genetically modified organisms for increasing the food supply, which is becoming a more significant issue with population growth and climate change.

The ability to produce fresh water could be another major game changer, as Persons describes potable water as “geopolitically, the new oil.” This also will be affected by climate change.

And cyber will continue to wrap all of these efforts. Cyber resilience will be vital when these new technologies become part of the mainstream, and this will require major policy decisions along the way. “We need to do this sooner than later, because the future is now,” Persons states.

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