The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020 - 9

Feature

PUBLIC POLICY: A Different Way to Change the World

NIST is usually not led by a
lawyer, but rather a scientist or
engineer. The current Director,
Dr. Walter Copan, has a Ph.D.
in Chemistry. Engineers and
other technology professionals
can be found throughout the
organization. Past IEEE-USA
Dr. Walter Copan
and IEEE President Gordon Day
spent most of his career at NIST, where he founded
and ran its Optoelectronics Division. Other IEEE
members can be found in most departments doing
cutting edge work for the country.

PUBLIC POLICY:

Current law also fails to clarify who is responsible
when an autonomous vehicle gets into an accident.
(This is America after all-we always need to know
whom to sue!)

Some of these experts are engineers and scientists
doing work that is not that dissimilar to work done
at corporations or universities. But others are
administrators, directors and other policymakers.
Rather than doing the research, these engineers
decide what research will get done, and how. Their role
in the innovation process is every bit as important as
the folks doing the research-and the process works
better if the policymakers understand the science and
engineering behind the projects they are leading.

No matter how well-engineered your autonomous
vehicle is, no matter how easy it is to drive or how
much it improves safety, nobody is going to drive it
on public roads until our traffic and liability laws are
updated. That is the work of Congress, state legislature,
and agencies such as the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"Policy" are the rules that determine how society
functions. They include laws and regulations, but also
less formal rules such as guidelines, procedures and
administrative actions. The men and women who
develop and implement policy play an enormous role
in deciding how technological innovation will happen,
even if they do not develop the technology itself.

And within each of those organizations (yes, even
Congress) are engineers, programmers and other
technology professionals putting their skills to work
crafting the policies needed to allow other engineers,
programmers and technology professionals
to innovate.

Doing this properly-crafting the rules that govern how
technology can be used, built, sold or developed-can
be done by people who don't understand technology,
but that is often a bad idea. Lawyers and accountants
are, of course, important, but we need people who
understand technology to understand how society
should, can, and will use technology. The country
needs people with technical backgrounds to peer
into the future, see how technology could develop,
recognize institutional or legal obstacles preventing that
development, and then creatively create paths around
those obstacles.

A Different Way to Change the World
Russ Harrison

Why did you decide to become an
engineer? Was it to change the world, or
perhaps just to create something tangible
to make the world a better place? Both
are noble goals, and common among
engineering students who dream of
designing life-saving medical devices,
building robots for Mars or programing
the first truly autonomous vehicle.
But creating things isn't the only way that engineers
can change the world. The reality is that new medical
devices, Mars rovers and self-driving cars require more
than just technology and computer programs. These
innovations will also require changes to our nation's
laws and regulations. In fact, the more genuinely
innovative a product is, the more laws usually need to
be changed to accommodate it.
Someone has to draft those accommodating laws.
That someone could be (and frequently should be)
an engineer.
Take autonomous vehicles. Currently, U.S. laws (and
the laws in every other country I am aware of) require
that a human driver be in control of the car at all times.
The laws just assume this, which means the laws
effectively prohibit vehicles being driven by a computer.

THE BRIDGE

Take the National Institute of Standards and Technology
(NIST). It is one of the world's premier measurement
and standards organizations. Among many, many other
things, NIST's work was crucial for the development
of the atomic clock, earthquake-proof buildings, and
the smart grid. Back in 1959, NIST even proved that
curveballs actually curve. Today, NIST plays a central
role helping the U.S. government coordinate its
cybersecurity efforts, develop AI, and build
quantum computers.

Actually, lawyers are really good at this last step,
but engineers are better at all the rest.
In the early 1980s we had a great example of
what a talented engineer can do in the policy world.

In 1985 the Federal Communication Commission
(FCC) adopted new rules for spread spectrum
modulation, allowing unlicensed users access to
three chunks of electromagnetic spectrum. This
decision sparked development of new short-range
systems for data transmission that did not need to
ask the FCC for detailed review before commercial
introduction. Ultimately it resulted in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
technologies, and hundreds of billions of dollars in
economic activity.
None of these technologies existed in 1985, and
may not have ever existed had the FCC not made this
policy change.

The country needs people with
technical backgrounds to peer
into the future, see how technology
could develop, recognize institutional
or legal obstacles preventing that
development, and then creatively
create paths around those obstacles.
RUSS HARRISON

It is not surprising that the person within the FCC who
realized the promise of emerging wireless technology is
an engineer, IEEE Fellow Dr. Mike Marcus. Many of the
lawyers and bureaucrats at the FCC could not see the
promise of a technology that did not yet exist. But an
engineer could-and did.
Almost every federal department has a research
department. Almost every federal department deals
with technology, and the issues involved in deploying
it. And, therefore, almost every federal agency needs
skilled engineers and technologists who understand
technology enough to chart an innovation path forward
for the agency.
But perhaps you are thinking bigger than merely
running a national lab or government agency. What
about Congress, the top policy making body in the
United States? Currently there are several engineers
in Congress, including Reps. McKinley (R-WV) and
Houlahan (D-PA). Congressman Thomas Massey
(R-KY) has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering

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The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020

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The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020 - Cover1
The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020 - Cover2
The Bridge - Issue 2, 2020 - Contents
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