Building Back Better with Distributed Computing

January 19, 2021

The United States can create jobs, better compete against China, and at the same time address major social challenges if it leverages the emerging combination of technologies that will constitute “distributed computing” to enable new, democracy-enhancing 21st century infrastructure.

Three technologies—the Internet of Things, 5G, and artificial intelligence (AI)—will increasingly come together to compose a new digital revolution. The resulting distributed computing will function as a hugely enhanced combination of the smartphone and the cloud, or as a computer network in a box. It can unlock massive opportunities if the United States invests at home and works with allies to protect democratic values. Distributed computing can solve some of the country’s long-term challenges in climate, healthcare, transportation, and energy. 

From the United States’ birth, networks that link its vast number of individuals, companies, and communities in new ways have served as “platforms” for innovation and opportunity—including canals for shipping, post roads, railroads, highways, electric grids, pipelines, the telegraph, telephony, and the Internet.

Distributed computing can only help address critical social challenges with public investment and effort. With that support, the platforms enabled by distributed computing can provide tangible benefits to the built environment, jobs, and critical services around the country at lower cost than existing models for renewing the United States’ infrastructure, notably in the following sectors:

Clean power: Distributed-computing technology can drive improvements in the distribution and measurement of power generation and, through applications like load balancing, can mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions.

Transportation: Advances in distributed-computing technology will play a critical role in transitioning to a fleet of autonomous electric vehicles and it has the potential to drive innovations in road and highway infrastructure.

Water: Distributed-computing technology provides the opportunity to improve the functionality of the aging sewage and pipe systems that undergird U.S. cities.

Healthcare: Distributed-computing technology will drive improvements in healthcare by dramatically improving the delivery of innovative e-health applications like telehealth.

Education: Distributing computing can help improve student outcomes by providing teachers with new educational tools and providing adaptable educational programming for students.

In order to capture the benefits of distributed computing, the United States must invest at home and reassert its position as a global tech leader, working with allies to ensure that new technologies are deployed with respect to human rights and democratic values. To accomplish these aims, the following policy agenda should be adopted.

Investment in research and development (R&D): U.S. investment in R&D has flattened as a share of GDP. To ensure that government agencies have the resources and encouragement necessary to drive innovation, the United States must reverse this trend and recommit to investing in R&D.

Science and talent: Beyond R&D expenditure, the United States must develop its workforce by increasing investments in education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and reorient immigration law to ensure the United States can recruit technologists from across the world.

Supply-chain security: Particularly in critical industries, the United States must ensure that the supply chains do not undermine national security or give comfort to those who would undermine the open Internet or the global trading system.

New rules of the road for the digital era: To ensure that the externalities of technological deployment are not offloaded onto individuals and society, the United States must update offline civil rights, privacy, competition, campaign finance, and cybersecurity policies, and create new guardrails for the use of these technologies.

Modernizing government and creating new institutions for the digital age: The federal government must improve its capacity to administer services, which may require new institutions outside government, new systems within government, and a new willingness to engage in multi-disciplinary collaboration.

Improving global leadership: To ensure that emerging technologies are deployed with respect for human rights, security, and democratic values, the United States should join forces with allies and coordinate on technological deployment and standards setting.

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