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Breakthrough Technologies Offer Enormous Opportunity for Federal Leaders—If They Seize It

What Silicon Valley calls “exponential technologies” could transform agency operations and boost national security.

The world is in the midst of a technological revolution. Rapid developments in artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, edge and quantum computing, autonomous vehicles, precision medicine, nanotechnology and digital biology are transforming the way we live and work, creating new challenges and opportunities.

It is essential that federal leaders understand the potential of these breakthrough technologies and capitalize on those with the greatest promise to improve government operations and services.

During this time of swift change, the government is taking steps to explore and leverage these emerging technologies. In February, President Trump issued an executive order to strengthen American leadership in artificial intelligence, asserting that the U.S. should “drive technological breakthroughs in AI across the federal government, industry and academia in order to promote scientific discovery, economic competitiveness, and national security.”

Last year, Congress enacted a law directing the administration to establish a 10-year plan to accelerate the development of quantum information science and technology applications. The White House is in the process of developing this plan. The General Services Administration has created a program to test and pilot agency virtual and augmented reality projects, and the National Institutes of Health is working with other research organizations on precision medicine to enhance human health.

While these technologies vary in scope and purpose, Singularity University, an educational and innovation organization headquartered at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley, California, coined a phrase to describe them: “exponential technologies.” Defined by their exponential growth, these technologies double in power or speed each year, or their respective costs drop by half.

One exponential technology ripe for serious exploration is artificial intelligence, which could help agencies transform organizational models, rethink core processes, reshape the customer experience and bolster national security and our country’s economic leadership.

Another is edge computing, which pushes applications, data and computing services away from centralized points to locations closer to the user. The military uses edge computing to assist users deployed in the field and away from data centers, and this technology could be used by civilian agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deploys personnel into the field to respond to disasters.

As the digital and physical worlds grow increasingly intertwined, cyber threats have become a fact of life. Federal agencies must now go beyond today’s cybersecurity practices by developing new ways to safeguard computer networks against attacks, with the potential to integrate artificial intelligence and other technologies to predict where the adversary will go next.

Agency leaders and their technology experts need to be bold in their thinking and explore available opportunities. The starting point should be a clearly defined problem statement and business case for using these technologies, followed by pilot programs to test the new applications and chart a path forward.

Laying the groundwork now, shaping an approach to get the most out of new exponential technologies and thinking about new acquisition strategies will be critical for our government to meet the needs of today as well as challenges of the future.

Meroe Park is executive vice president at the Partnership for Public Service. Dee Dee Helfenstein is executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and leads the firm’s Solutions Business. On July 30, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton will kick-off the first session of their “Future Forward: Harnessing the Exponential Power of Technology” series of events.