Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | INNOVATION ECONOMY

Will Trump hit the pause button on progress in tech?

President-elect Donald Trump.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump.

Tweets from the near future . . .

“How can any drug be worth $750K a year? It’s a shakedown! I am calling on Biogen’s CEO to DROP PRICES to help patients survive!!!”

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“Driving big rigs is a great job for great Americans. We will work to bar robot trucks from ALL federal highways. 10-4, good buddies!”

“When you have REAL intelligence, why do you need ARTIFICIAL intelligence? No more federal $$$s for AI research, which kills jobs.”

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No, these messages haven’t been sent from President-elect Donald Trump’s smartphone. But they’re all plausible — or at least worth considering — as Inauguration Day approaches.

We’ve elected a president who doesn’t think twice about singling out individual companies for products that he considers too pricey, whether it’s Boeing’s contract to design the next Air Force One, or Lockheed Martin’s $400 billion (and counting) F-35 fighter jet program. He has railed against manufacturers moving jobs overseas and closing factories. And at his Wednesday press conference, Trump said pharmaceutical companies have been “getting away with murder.”

All those things should have people in the Boston-area innovation economy worried.

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Biotech companies here employ thousands of well-paid researchers to invent new drugs — many of which target small groups of patients with rare diseases. We’re a hub of robotics companies such as Rethink Robotics , Symbotic , and Amazon Robotics, a division of the e-commerce giant. They all develop machines that can do the work of humans in warehouses and on assembly lines. Millions of dollars are flowing into cutting-edge artificial intelligence research, as well as startups striving to apply it in real-world businesses. And fledgling companies like nuTonomy and Optimus Ride , as well as the Toyota Research Institute, are working on technologies for self-driving vehicles, some of which can already be seen on Boston streets.

What unites the people working in these industries is a set of beliefs about progress: that it’s better to have life-extending drugs than not, and that as business sectors like manufacturing, logistics, and transportation become more efficient, we should be producing — not just purchasing — technologies that make that happen. Will the federal government be on a totally different page for the next four years?

“What bothers me about Trump policy is that it does seem to be about restoring past industries to greatness, rather than leading the industries of the future,” says Rob May, chief executive of Talla , a Cambridge startup developing Web-based collaboration software.

Much of the Boston biotech community flew to San Francisco this week for an annual health care conclave organized by J.P. Morgan. Nearly everyone was talking about who Trump might name to head the Food and Drug Administration, congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and those comments about high drug prices. (By the way, Hillary Clinton issued similar messages about drug prices during the campaign.)

“We are taking it very seriously,” says Arthur Tzianabos, chief executive of Homology Medicines , a Bedford biotech startup. He says the issue of drug prices can get confusing when companies suddenly jack up prices for a treatment that has been on the market for years — as happened last year with the EpiPen, used by people who suffer from severe allergies. Tzianabos says that’s a different matter than getting rewarded for spending a decade or more, and often risking hundreds of millions of dollars, to create a first-of-a-kind medicine.

If the economic incentive to create those kinds of medicines “were to go away substantially,” Alexis Borisy writes via e-mail, “there would be a big decline in our ecosystem.” Borisy is a partner at Third Rock Ventures, a Boston venture capital firm.

John L. Brooks III, a board member of several biotech companies and former chief executive of the Joslin Diabetes Center, says, “People are trying to figure out what’s really beyond the tweets.” (He also notes that a “less burdensome FDA” could prove to be a boon for the biotech industry.)

In the worlds of artificial intelligence, robotics, and self-driving vehicles, executives already are acutely aware of the perception that their work fuels job losses.

“By definition, if you improve workers’ productivity, you’re affecting the labor base,” says Bruce Welty, chairman of Locus Robotics , a Wilmington startup that builds robots to transport items in warehouses. “We could get to full employment if we just got rid of all the bulldozers and backhoes, but I’m not sure we want to do that.”

The next wave to follow bulldozers and backhoes might be taxis, buses, and trucks that don’t require drivers. Companies working on the technology to enable that, like Cambridge-based nuTonomy, say these autonomous vehicles will be safer and more fuel efficient than human-driven ones, and can potentially diminish both transportation costs and traffic jams. NuTonomy founder Karl Iagnemma says the vehicles will probably hit the roads gradually, “giving time for job retraining.”

Retraining for what? Just like the people who invented new looms that vastly accelerated the work of weaving in the early days of the industrial revolution, the people leading these industries of the future don’t have great answers for some of the questions that their work leads to. What will former truck drivers or warehouse workers do? How many more $100,000-a-year treatments can the health care system absorb?

I think we’re exiting the era of “all progress is good progress.” I don’t know whether we’re going to see Luddite-like efforts to slash the tires of self-driving cars or kneecap the robot that replaces the bagger at the grocery store. But friction between the knowledge economy and the nostalgia economy — all those solid, blue-collar jobs Trump would like to preserve or “bring back” — seems inevitable.

Welty at Locus Robotics says, “I don’t particularly like when governments get involved in trying to dictate where companies expend their resources,” adding that if American companies are somehow “shamed” or restrained through legislation, “somebody else in another country, who hasn’t been singled out, will just be running the race, competing free of any kind of shaming.”

Who is going to be the voice for forward-looking academic research and the industries of the future — preventing them from becoming punching bags? We need more than just the usual lobbying groups, D.C. drop-ins, and letter-writing. We need some fearless, high-profile champions.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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