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Q&A: Aneesh Chopra, National CTO

The presidential adviser explains how information technology can reboot America.
August 6, 2009

In announcing the appointment of Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first chief technology officer (CTO) in April, President Barack Obama said Chopra would “promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities.” So far, Chopra’s federal policy focus has been on leveraging information technology to revamp health care, education, and the energy infrastructure.

Chopra works within the Office of Science and Technology Policy under presidential science adviser John Holdren but also directly advises the president on technology policy–a new role in the executive branch. His job is distinct from that of Vivek Kundra, the nation’s chief information officer (CIO), who provides oversight of the government’s information-technology contracts and efforts to make the federal government more open and efficient.

Before he took the CTO post, Chopra served as Virginia’s technology secretary. His efforts ranged from forging public-private initiatives on rural broadband expansion to launching a competition for iPhone apps to aid middle-school math students. Chopra, who is 37, spoke recently with Technology Review.

Technology Review: Why do we need a national CTO?

Aneesh Chopra: President Obama has suggested there is a thoughtful role for technology and innovation across a wide range of priorities. While we have had White House leadership on technology policy in the past, this Administration has taken a broader view of the power and potential of technology to reduce health-care costs, deliver energy efficiency through smart-grid applications, and improve the skills of the workforce.

TR: Some economists see little evidence that federal spending on broadband will have a payback for the economy. How does spending $10,000 to get broadband to a rural farmhouse help the economy?

AC: It’s not just broadband for the sake of laying pipe and capacity–it’s about spurring innovative applications. Our teams at the commerce and agriculture departments are collaborating with the private sector not only to extend access where service today doesn’t exist, but also to achieve a wider range of goals. We envision innovation in health care through telemedicine, distance learning, and even smart-grid infrastructure.

One example of rural application innovation we championed in Virginia was creating regional, shared e-911 services powered by broadband. In funding this with seed capital, we anticipated both improvements in emergency coverage and reductions in long-term costs. And it is conceivable that a grant that supports a rural farmhouse would open up higher-wage telework opportunities to that resident.

TR: What will make government more effective at promoting these kinds of technology applications?

AC: Government’s role in promoting technology has traditionally been in the investment of basic R&D or the procurement of goods and services. It is my intention as CTO to focus on public-private collaboration to operate between those two extremes. In some cases, we might invest in a more targeted R&D opportunity that would bring private sector resources, universities, and the public sector together on a given problem. In others, we might use a procurement opportunity to spur market innovation.

TR: How would that work?

AC: For example, is a website that seeks to drive innovation towards Department of Defense needs. Instead of procuring a specific device described by a multi-thousand-item specification, the department asks for a solution, such as “How do you field-test for the presence of explosives, drugs, and gunshot residue?” By leaving room for unanticipated and potentially disruptive technologies in the private sector, we can procure an innovative solution. Dozens of ideas have already been submitted to, and a few are already gaining traction.

TR:That method might find you a disruptive technology–but on health IT, aren’t there plenty of well-established electronic medical records technologies out there?

AC: Yes, but to receive stimulus funds, health-care providers will have to demonstrate meaningful use of technology to improve care quality, lower costs, or improve patient engagement and communication. I am focused on helping ensure the “meaningful use” criteria are designed to spur health reform and promote new products or services. Today, we don’t have benchmarks differentiating the various products. When we do, we are confident the market will drive towards better value in achieving them.

TR:Is “meaningful use” an idea that should be more broadly applied?

AC: I would love to see this model apply in other areas where we see policy benefit in the adoption and use of IT.

TR:On the smart-grid, power utilities can prove “meaningful use” of existing technologies by documenting reduced electricity demand. Right now, though, the investment decisions are left mainly to 50 sets of state regulators and local utilities, and implementation is spotty. How can the federal government fix this?

AC: The federal role there has been very clear. First, we are seeding capital investment in this space through the Recovery Act–$4.5 billion for matching funds and demonstration projects. These initial projects are crucial to proving the value of the smart grid. Once the business case has been demonstrated, we believe that state and local decision-makers will continue investing in the build-out. Secondly, we are working through NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] on open standards to ensure the interoperability, reliability, and security of the smart grid. As we saw with the Internet, open standards enable innovation and scalability. These federal initiatives are complementary and in a collaborative spirit with state regulators and industry.

TR:Looking past these initial efforts, you are working on a broader policy document about spurring innovation. Can you give us at least a broad outline of what a national innovation policy would look like? What would it cover? What would be its goals?

AC: The Administration has three key goals for strengthening America’s competitiveness and driving innovation. The first is improving the environment for private-sector innovation. This includes efforts to make the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent, to encourage small businesses with targeted capital-gains tax reductions and improved access to capital, and to reform our patent system.

Second, we must invest in the building blocks of innovation such as human capital, fundamental research, and infrastructure. The president has committed to double the budgets of key science agencies, triple the number of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, improve public school performance in science and math, and restore America’s leadership in college attainment.

Finally, we must harness innovation to address key national priorities, including accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy, allowing Americans to lead longer, healthier lives, and making government more open and transparent. All of this must be done with a view towards concrete measurable outcomes.

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