Commentary by Steve Vinter

Industry/Non-Profit Perspective

Steve Vinter, Engineering Director, Google, Inc. and Co-founder of MassCAN, an initiative to offer computer science to every K-12 student in Massachusetts

Steve Vitner Engineering Director, Google, Inc. and Co-founder of MassCAN

The 2017 Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy provides a comprehensive assessment of Massachusetts’ economic leadership and health, and documents the Commonwealth’s ability to sustain high performance over the past decade. Looking forward, two questions come to mind: what are the key elements of the Commonwealth’s economic health that will sustain our leadership position in coming years, and how are we positioned to respond to emerging technology innovations that will create new opportunities for economic competition and growth in the future?


The heart of our economic health is the diversity and growth of a broad array of industry sectors. We have ten sectors larger than $5 billion, five of which have experienced double digit growth since 2011. This variety immunizes our overall economy against sector-specific downturns that periodically arise, and creates the opportunity for cross-sector innovation that derives from interdisciplinary collaboration and advances in our research community. The Index identifies the nutrients that enable sector vitality as being distinctive leadership areas for Massachusetts: world class research, a deep reservoir of talent produced by stellar education institutions, and a continuous flow of financial investment to convert potential into economic outcomes. The Massachusetts innovation economy is an ecosystem of mutually complementary systems that reinforce and enrich one another.


As the Internet has matured over the past several decades, the most transformative technology in recent years affecting all of our lives is mobile computing. In combination with the Internet, today’s mobile phones are powerful computers that offer us thousands of applications to access unlimited amounts of information from anywhere in the world, placing the power of the internet in our pockets. What new technologies are maturing that can transformative, cross sector effects driving our innovation economy forward in the coming years?


One highly impactful maturing technology for businesses is cloud computing services. Over the past two decades, technology advances, such as Search, Ads, laptops and mobile computing have been driven by consumers’ willingness to instantly and continuously adopt the latest advances, pay for them, and integrate them into their lives. In contrast, businesses have moved more slowly, being limited by the cost and challenges of managing changes to their own technology infrastructure.  


Cloud computing changes this equation, as businesses shift their infrastructure dependency from internal facilities and services to the cloud. This shift has four benefits. First, businesses can scale and shrink their service usage instantaneously in response to their business needs, making them efficient, responsive to market forces, and cost effective. Second, new services and technologies can be introduced much more rapidly, since service changes are managed by the cloud companies rather than the IT departments within each business. This reduces the barriers for adoption, increasing business flexibility and adaptability. Third, the explosion in the use of these cloud services by ever-increasing numbers of businesses creates a virtuous cycle: greater business adoption of cloud services yields greater investment in those services, greater investment yields greater innovation in cloud services, greater innovation yields greater value to businesses, and in turn greater adoption.


The last benefit of cloud services is the ability to scale data storage at commodity rates. This is essential because of the emergence of “big data”, the practice of creating extremely large data sets collected from both human and systems behavior, and analyzing them computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations that drive increased business insight and value to the business. The explosion of data collection drives deeper understanding and value in every sector: routing traffic more efficiently, developing personalized drugs, more intelligent financial decisions, and so on. Cloud services, and their use to collect and analyze massive amounts of data, will have a transformative effect on every large business sector within Massachusetts in the next decade.


The second technology innovation to transform industry is machine intelligence being applied to large data sets. Machine intelligence, and specifically machine learning, requires three ingredients that have historically not been available to businesses: enormous quantities of data to train learning algorithms, the algorithms themselves, and the enormous computing power to process that data against the learning models. Cloud computing delivers all three, and the machine learning algorithms will evolve and mature as demand for their use and their value expands. Machine intelligence provides the insights to reveal those patterns, trends and associations in data that are more complex than most, and increasingly all, humans are been capable of understanding. In the past computing was predominantly used in businesses for back office, IT functions. Machine intelligence changes the role of computation in all businesses across all sectors -- it becomes core to the value proposition of businesses, and thereby becomes a competitive advantage to use machine intelligence most effectively.


The third technology advance that will affect every sector is in the area of cybersecurity. As can be seen by our daily headlines, the dependence on computing and the generation and use of massive amounts of data throughout our society has caused our lives, businesses, countries, and political institutions to be vulnerable to ever increasing security attacks. And the quality and sophistication of security threats will increase as our dependence increases. Consequently, security systems will need to be developed that respond to these threats, creating a cycle of investment and escalation in security. Massachusetts is responding to this escalation by investing in education, research and workforce development in this area, which will, in turn, benefit our Commonwealth’s economy.

 

As technology becomes increasingly important to achieving a competitive advantage in the core business areas in all sectors, the demand for technology talent, already in short supply, will increase. Massachusetts is not self-sufficient for growing its talent pool, as we rely on students from other states and countries to stay after they graduate, and a higher percentage of graduates leave Massachusetts after graduating than in other states.  Our most effective response to mitigate this dependency is to teach computational thinking concepts, as defined by our Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards, to all Massachusetts students at the K-12 level, and to offer pathways through high school to prepare students to contribute to the wide range of problem-solving skills needed across all sectors. Preparing the next generation of professionals for the Massachusetts innovation economy is our best investment to ensure it will thrive in the years ahead.