Obama goes into full (and feisty) geek mode at White House Frontiers Conference

Barack Obama at Frontiers Conference
“Innovation is in our DNA,” President Barack Obama tells his audience at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. (Credit: White House)

President Barack Obama stated the obvious today during what almost sounded like a farewell address to the tech community he loves.

“I confess, I am a science geek,” he said at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. “I’m a nerd, and I don’t make any apologies for it. … It’s cool stuff.”

Obama geeked out big time during his visit to Carnegie Mellon University – checking in with a quadriplegic patient whose sense of finger touch was restored thanks to a brain implant, and steering a flight simulator for a Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule’s docking with the International Space Station.

“Your ride is here, baby,” Obama said after mastering the simulated hookup.

He took a look at SpaceX’s next-generation Dragon capsule, which NASA plans to use along with the Starliner to transport astronauts to and from the space station in a couple of years. Other exhibits showed off a drone designed to inspect critical infrastructure, cars with autonomous driving features, and the Seattle-based Mozak citizen-neuroscience initiative.

“Your ride is here, baby!” Obama says as he gets out of the Boeing simulator. “This is like the Uber shuttle!” pic.twitter.com/deNRNde5BF

— Josh Lederman (@joshledermanAP) October 13, 2016

“You almost want to get in and take off, don’t you?” @POTUS says. pic.twitter.com/DfAJOGyBWR

— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) October 13, 2016

Looking for us at #WHFrontiers ? Here’s a hint to help you find @ZoranPopovic and learn about us! pic.twitter.com/BeeV80DE5F

— neurons (@MozakCGS) October 13, 2016

During his address to the conference, Obama said a love of science and technology was as much a part of the fabric of America as Benjamin Franklin and his lightning experiments. “Innovation is in our DNA,” he told the crowd.

The president also took veiled swipes at his critics, including climate-change skeptics.

“I get so riled up when I hear people willfully ignore facts, or stick their heads in the sand about basic scientific consensus … It’s not just that they’re saying climate change is a hoax, or taking a snowball on the Senate floor to ‘prove’ that the planet’s not getting warmer,” he said. “It’s that they’re doing everything they can to gut research and development.”

After the talk, Obama sat in on a panel with three scientists and a patient advocate to talk about the future of health care – and talked up his administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative.

“Part of our goal here is to shift from what is really a disease care system to an actual health care system,” he said. “Just to be more specific, part of what we’re doing with the Precision Medicine Initiative is to get a bunch of collaborators to start digitalizing, pooling and sharing their data.”

Could the rise of personalized, genome-based medicine raise cybersecurity and privacy concerns? Obama acknowledged that data security will be “increasingly challenging,” but added that “the opportunity to hack your information will be just as great or greater in a poorly integrated, broken-down health care system as it will be in a highly integrated, effective health care system.”


Here are a few other nuggets from today’s conference:

  • The White House took the occasion to announce more than $300 million in support for programs in science, technology and medicine: $70 million for brain studies focused on unraveling the mysteries surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions; $16 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative; $165 million in public and private funds to address urban tech challenges such as traffic congestion; and $50 million for small-satellite technology.
  • Obama acknowledged that the shift to more sophisticated artificial intelligence, robotics and automation will pose challenges for the workforce of the future. He noted that services such as Uber and Lyft were already leading to dramatic shifts in transportation trends. “It’s actually driverless Uber that is going to be even more challenging,” he said. “The same is true in the health care field.”
  • Obama managed to get in a dig at the social-media-driven presidential campaign, without mentioning GOP candidate Donald Trump. “In this political season, we’ve seen, you just say stuff,” he said. “So, everything suddenly becomes contested. That, I think, is not good for our democracy, and it’s certainly not good for science, or progress, or government, or fixing systems.”
  • Even though the president is a big fan of technology and innovation, he pointed out that the federal government is fundamentally different from a startup. “Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs, because by definition, democracy is messy. … Part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that no one wants to deal with,” Obama said.
  • The Frontiers Conference also featured a series of specialized panels on sectors of science, medicine and technology. During a panel focusing on spaceflight, Blue Origin’s Erika Wagner played up her company’s program to fly scientific payloads on its New Shepard capsule. “We’re really at the point where any school that can afford a robotics program can now have their own space program,” she said.