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GOP and industry agree: Tech has a messaging problem

Engadget Engadget 20/07/2016 Terrence O'Brien
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The government and the technology industry agree: They need to do a better job educating the public. During a policy forum hosted by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) at the Republican National Convention this week, members of Congress and several industry veterans admitted that they have not done enough to dispel myths around technology, nor have they found the proper way to push Americans towards degrees in STEM fields. Congressman Blake Farenthold from Texas said that, "everyone still wants an MBA," even though you'd probably make more money with a degree in engineering.

It's unclear exactly how many STEM jobs there are out there waiting to be filled. Estimates vary from 400,000, according to Erin Egan at Facebook, all the way up to 1.4 million by 2020, according to Regardless, it's clear there aren't enough graduates with the appropriate degrees to fill those roles. Especially since, as Robert D. Atkinson (president of the ITIF) points out, "everything is becoming a tech industry." Unsurprisingly, Michael Gallagher, President and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), believes part of the solution is gamification. He argues that when you use a video game style interface, kids stay engaged and learn quicker. But, it will take more than earning badges to hook kids early and keep them interested in science and technology. Representative Michael Turner of Ohio says we know how to teach STEM; our challenge is motivation.

The messaging problem goes beyond promoting STEM degrees, though. The industry is losing the PR war over controversial technologies like GMOs and artificial intelligence. Egan, Facebook's Vice President of US Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer, is quick to admit that "we as a technology industry need to be doing a better job" of communicating with the public. She says that people are concerned that robots are going to take all their jobs and artificial intelligence is going to enslave the human race, but those are myths. These narratives make for great television and movies, but they're simply not realistic, according to Egan.

James C. Greenwood, President and CEO of the trade group Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), latched on to the fear of GMOs in particular. He argued that even many in congress don't quite understand what a genetically modified organism is. This has led to fear that modified corn is poisoning us or that modified fish will demolish populations of native species, which he claims is simply untrue.

Farenthold argues part of the problem is that both the industry and law makers "have a bad habit of getting into the weeds too fast." He says that most Americans only need a 30,000-foot view of the issues. So perhaps part of the solution is to keep it simple. As he explained, "you don't need to understand the blockchain to understand encryption."

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