Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • A Call for Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges

    Today, June 17, the Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking suggestions for Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges for the Next Decade. A Grand Challenge is an ambitious but achievable goal that requires advances in science and technology to achieve, and that has the potential to capture the public’s imagination.

    Under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), scientists, engineers, and educators are building a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry. The collective effort of this community to achieve the vision of the NNI has greatly accelerated the discovery, development, and deployment of nanotechnology to address broad national needs.

  • Mobilizing $4 Billion in Private-Sector Support for Homegrown Clean Energy Innovation

    Ingenuity is one of our country’s greatest assets. America’s entrepreneurs and innovators have a legacy of unleashing their creativity, grit, and imagination to invent, discover, and build solutions that not only contribute to our growing economy, but also solve some of the toughest challenges facing the nation. Investing in homegrown innovation, including the development of new, clean-energy technologies, is a crucial part of the fight against climate change – and is key to keeping America on the leading edge of the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

  • Making Tomorrow’s Manufacturing Economy Today

    American ingenuity has always powered this country and fueled economic growth. Makers, builders, and tinkerers of all stripes have connected far corners of the nation, lit up the night sky, and never wavered in creating solutions to address the world’s most pressing challenges of our time.

    We know that ordinary Americans are capable of unleashing the extraordinary when they have access to the tools and resources they need. That’s why in June 2014, President Obama launched the first-ever White House Maker Faire, an all-hands-on-deck call to give the country’s entrepreneurs, students, and hobbyists access to a new class of technologies – including 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools – that are enabling more Americans to design and manufacture just about anything.

    In the same way that major technology companies found their start in the original West Coast Computer Faire and Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s, the rise of the “Maker Movement” represents a significant opportunity for the United States today.

  • The BRAIN Like You've Never Seen It Before!

    The most mysterious biological organ in the universe is located right between your ears: your brain -- a non-stop multitasking marvel.  Your brain controls your thinking, voluntary behaviors, and critical aspects of your physiology, such as breathing.

    Although brain research has advanced in recent years, no one has yet cracked the code of healthy brain function. An improved understanding of the healthy brain may open new avenues for treating traumatic brain injuries and brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

    That’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- the only Federal agency that funds basic research across almost all science and engineering fields -- supports basic research on how healthy brains work.  NSF is also one of the five Federal agencies supporting The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, an initiative launched by President Obama in 2013 that aims to develop and apply technologies to help revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.

    Advanced technologies and techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), bionic limbs, and laser eye surgery were all initially grounded NSF-funded basic research. Basic research on the healthy brain could lead to equally profound advances.

    NSF-funded brain research comes to life in a new video series -- “Mysteries of the Brain” -- produced by NBC Learn in partnership with NSF. “Mysteries of the Brain” uses special effects, simulations, interviews, and animations to show, not just tell, what we know about how the brain works in various species, including humans, and the creative techniques being used by cutting-edge brain researchers to learn more. 

  • On Puzzles, Code, and Problem Solving

    My first two posts here on the OSTP blog have offered puzzles about cooperative games, first for two players, and then a harder version for any number K of players. Besides being fun, these puzzles shed some light on how computer scientists think about facilitating cooperation across a network.

    In the first puzzle, there are only two players, Alice and Bob, and there are only four possible strategies a player can follow: always guess heads, always guess tails, guess the same as your own coin, and guess the opposite of your own coin. Four strategies for Alice and four for Bob gives 16 total strategy combinations. If we want to know whether a strategy is guaranteed to win the game, we can simply check all 16 strategies against all four possibilities for the coin flip results (two possibilities for Alice’s coin, times two possibilities for Bob’s). An exhaustive analysis of 64 cases (four flip outcomes for each of 16 strategy combinations) can find a strategy that solves the puzzle, with no real brainpower required.

    We can even write a computer program to do the search. For readers who are programmers, here’s my Python program to do it:

    strategies = ['heads', 'tails', 'same', 'opposite']
    coinsides = ['heads', 'tails']
    def right(myStrat, myCoin, theirCoin):
        if myStrat==theirCoin:    return True
        if myStrat=='same' and myCoin==theirCoin:    return True
        if myStrat=='opposite' and myCoin!=theirCoin:    return True
        return False
    def guaranteesWin(aStrat, bStrat):
        for aCoin in coinsides:
            for bCoin in coinsides:
                if (not right(aStrat,aCoin,bCoin)):
                    if (not right(bStrat,bCoin,aCoin)):
                        return False
        return True
    for aliceStrat in strategies:
        for bobStrat in strategies:
            if guaranteesWin(aliceStrat, bobStrat):
                print 'Winning strategy: Alice ', aliceStrat, ', Bob',bobStrat

    In the second puzzle, where there might be any number K of players, there are exponentially many strategies possible, so there’s no hope of solving the puzzle by brute force computer search. Our only hope is to be clever. And that means human cleverness, because computers aren’t yet clever enough to solve puzzles like this from scratch. In general, whenever we need a mechanism to induce cooperation among a large group of people, we’ll have to be clever about how we design that mechanism. Here’s the cleverest solution I could come up with to the hats problem. (Do you have a better one? Let me know @EdFelten44!)

    Real-world problems are even more challenging than these puzzles because, unlike in the puzzles, people might not all be playing on the same team. If people are trying to maximize their own profit or outcome, then we need the system to align incentives so that when each player maximizes their own outcome, the result is an equilibrium of cooperation – that’s a class of problems that computer scientists call “mechanism design.” The most difficult case is where one or more of the players, for reasons of their own, want to cause a bad outcome – that’s the basic scenario in “information security” or “cybersecurity” problems.

    Of course, these aren’t only technical challenges. They’re policy challenges and social challenges too. That’s why the Administration is working to promote a free and open Internet here at home and around the world, joining with stakeholders to enable the conditions for computer scientists, policymakers, and anyone who’s interested to cooperate online to solve these challenges and bring the benefits of the digital world to everyone. And it’s why the Administration is taking action to support computer science education and empower everyone with the skills to leverage the capacities of computers in order to benefit humans.

    Puzzles aren’t only fun, they’re also miniature versions of the big, important challenges that computer scientists, policymakers, and others are working together to solve. I joined the White House because I wanted to try to solve those challenges as part of a team – a team that includes people like you.

    Ed Felten is Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • Prioritization Upgrade: Expanding Diversity in Our Technology Ecosystem Now

    “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

    — Albert Einstein

    We are excited to be out in California today to roll up our sleeves and participate in the “Diversity in Tech” workshop, hosted by the White House and the Kapor Center for Social Impact. We are here to brainstorm and strategize with innovators from throughout the technology ecosystem to learn about what's worked for employers to recruit, retain, and advance top talent from under-represented communities, and for venture capitalists to fund and advise the full range of early start-up teams. We will hear about what’s working already that could be scaled now, as well as understand where challenges need pilot exploration work and urgent innovation.