Business, Finance & Economics

Technologist-in-Chief?

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SAN FRANCISCO — Even before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama took ownership of the economic crisis in a speech that put a futuristic spin on a huge stimulus program conceived out of dire necessity.

Setting goals that ranged from the greening of energy and homes to the computerization of classrooms and medical records, Obama followed a presidential tradition of depicting science and technology as pathways to opportunity even in the face of adversity.

Recent examples include John F. Kennedy's promotion of the moon race during the Cold War and the Clinton administration's opportunistic embrace of the World Wide Web that led to a bubble of investment in communications.

The link between prosperity and technology was given a distinctly American flavor in Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay, "Science the Endless Frontier." Bush, who had been President Franklin D. Roosevelt's scientific adviser during World War II, saw how radar and the atom bomb helped win the war. He argued that technological change, spurred by government-supported basic research, could drive economic progress and raise standards of living. Bush equated that search for knowledge with the frontier spirit that formed the American character.

Obama's speech evoked the "Endless Frontier" when he promised to invest "in the science, research and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries and entire new industries." As much as possible he spoke in broad strokes to avoid the devils that become evident as programs boil down to details.

Fulfilling technological promises has been problematic as far back as President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech in 1953 that suggested that nuclear fission would "provide abundant electrical energy in power-starved areas of the world" — overlooking the safe disposal of radioactive waste. Technology, like any frontier, poses unknown perils. The cruel joke in high-tech is that the pioneers often end up with arrows in their backs.

Obama is tech-savvy. His campaign proved that. Now his familiarity with the high-tech terrain may make him cautious when it comes to promises. Consider Obama's pledge to "make the immediate investments necessary to ensure that, within five years, all of America's medical records are computerized." This, he said, would improve medical efficiency and safety — not to mention stimulate sales of computers, software and peripherals. It may sound bold but what Obama did was commit his administration to meet a timetable that George Bush set in a 2004 speech in which he urged that "within 10 years, every American must have a personal electronic medical record."

Hitting that 2014 deadline will challenge Obama despite any unacknowledged groundwork laid by his predecessor. Hardware vendors like IBM and The Hewlett-Packard Co., and software specialists such as Google and Microsoft are testing electronic records technologies. Standardizing rival systems will be just one of many chores ahead – not the least of which will be convincing unions, doctors, hospitals and insurers to bear the costs of the paper-to-digital conversion.

Recent history reveals the perils inherent in even simple technology shifts. For the last decade television broadcasters have been preparing to make the transition from analog to digital transmission. The Federal Communications Commission, which administers the process, says the switch will deliver better audio and video. To ease the conversion it has offered coupons to help consumers buy converters to display digital signals using analog antennas and televisions.

But as the Feb. 17 switchover looms, the Obama transition team has urged Congress to give consumers more time to prepare — a tiny change as compared to digitization of every record kept in medicine.

So while Obama continues the presidential tradition of promoting technology, he is wary of the frustrations of trying to deliver. The next policy clues will come when Obama names a chief technology officer, a lofty-sounding post whose purpose remains, for now, a moving target on the Endless Frontier.

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