GAO Center to Educate Congress on the Big Picture of Future Tech

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The Center for Strategic Foresight plans to give lawmakers a broad sense of what’s coming in the future.

The Government Accountability Office’s Center for Strategic Foresight had its coming-out party earlier this month, establishing what the group would like to be an annual conference about the biggest technological trends and issues that should be on lawmakers’ radar. 

Since the center launched in late 2017, GAO has established other, more focused technology groups. But James-Christian Blockwood, managing director of the Office of Strategic Planning and External Liaison, of which the center is a part, said the group plans to maintain a broader scope, complementing efforts like those of the new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team, which is taking a more direct advisory role for lawmakers.

“The deeper dive into, say, quantum computing, being able to understand what that is and what that really means, there are other parts of GAO, such as our new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team that can provide that information,” Blockwood said. “The center itself cannot answer all of those [questions] unilaterally and independently. But working with other organizations within GAO, it certainly can provide that full picture of raising awareness, understanding broad trends, how it’s interacting with other trends, the implications, opportunities and challenges.”

That said, Blockwood said there aren’t any hard dividing lines between the groups.

“It is very important to ensure that those in Congress understand—and have a good understanding of—emerging issues and trends,” he said. “It is easier said than done to keep track of not only what’s on the horizon—what’s coming up in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years—but how those are interacting with other trends, particularly in technology, but not just in technology.”

The center’s goal will be to look at these trends from a broader perch, while groups like STAA work on the hard technical details.

Think of it this way: The Center for Strategic Foresight writes the science fiction version of a technical analysis—looking at the technologies and advancements coming down the pike and how those will affect society as a whole, as well as the form and function of government. Meanwhile, complementary offices like STAA are producing technical guides and textbooks on those technologies—explaining the nuts and bolts of how they work and to what ends they can be applied.

While not a direct metaphor, Blockwood said the description is an apt way of viewing the center’s relationship to the rest of GAO.

“The center may raise an issue at a very high level, provide some understanding of that issue in a very clean and simple way, and then our STAA team, in this particular example, might look at it in a more deeper, focused way, really looking at the technologies that comprise the bigger, broader topic,” he said.

And while its scope might seem different, its outputs will be even more so.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the produce or outcome that comes out of the center is a report,” like other GAO offices, Blockwood said. “Importantly, it’s more about convening the right level of expertise and providing a lens of foresight in terms of looking at, ‘What are the implications, challenges, opportunities or other parts of the trend or topic that we want to explore five, 10, 15 years from now.’”

At times, that could result in a more traditional-looking report; at others, it will take the form of a quick conversation, a formal briefing or some other type of “product.”

One of the nontraditional products coming out the center was a conference held earlier this month that dove into the emerging threat of deepfakes and the longstanding challenges of deep space travel and observation. Blockwood said he expects the inaugural conference will become an annual event and the center is considering scheduling more conferences in the future.

Even when the center does produce reports, they won’t look anything like the products coming out of other areas of GAO.

“There is a rigorous quality assurance framework and a process to which, from an audit perspective, the teams approach their work. There are certain standards that are followed, and for good reason. In fact, GAO helped write those standards. That is how we might work with a federal agency or federal program to accomplish audit work,” Blockwood explained. “The center may leverage that type of work and knowledge that comes from that work, but isn’t doing ‘an audit.’ It’s not at all. It’s looking at a particular issue and it’s bringing in from a number of sources—internal from our fellows or external expertise—and it’s trying to get a more comprehensive understanding of what that issue is and explain it in very simple terms so that it can be used in helping to ensure we have the right knowledge … for our lawmakers.”

Going forward, the center plans to look into a wide variety of technologies and futuristic ideas, including acellular agriculture, genome editing, privacy issues, artificial intelligence, brain augmentation, 5G and quantum computing, to name a few. But the center won’t just be looking at the cutting-edge; history is important, too, Blockwood said.

“There really is no limit to” how far back they plan to look, he said. “Especially in the science and technology area, it really is an evolution of what we have now that really shapes and determines what we have going forward. … I wouldn’t put a bookend on how far back we would go.”

Blockwood said the center doesn’t want to look too far forward into science that is pure fiction—the center wants to be a practical resource for Congress—but at the same time he doesn’t want to place limits on the scope of their work.

“Similarly, I wouldn’t do that necessarily on the frontend, either, in how far we would go looking forward,” he said. “We wouldn’t put a limit on it because it’s important that when you’re applying foresight to things like futures studies, that you’re not limited by your interpretation of the current environment, nor do you want to get into a place where you’re saying what couldn’t happen or could happen.”