“Technology locks into every aspect of government, and the government is trying to do what IEEE is already doing – advancing technology for humanity,” said Jillian Johnson, the IEEE-sponsored student in the 2019 Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE), as she describes one of her key discoveries during her recent experience.
This year, IEEE-USA, IEEE Technical Activities and the IEEE Life Members Committee sponsored her as a WISE intern for the nine-week summer program in Washington, D.C.
Johnson is a senior at Christian Brothers University (CBU) in Memphis. She will graduate in December 2020, with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies, of electrical engineering and cognitive neuroscience, a minor in mathematics, and a certificate in data analytics.
Since WISE began almost 30 years ago, the program has provided hundreds of the brightest engineering students from throughout the United States with internships that demonstrate how engineers can contribute to important issues involving science, technology and public policy. Each year, the seven engineering societies that sponsor WISE – IEEE among them – enable the students to get direct knowledge about how government officials make decisions on complex technological issues. At the same time, the students learn how engineers and scientists can contribute to the legislative process and regulatory decision-making.
The interns gain further insights on how engineers can contribute to legislative and regulatory public policy decisions by researching, writing and presenting a paper on a public policy issue of particular interest to the sponsoring society.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this year’s IEEE WISE intern not only obtained valuable new knowledge about how technology intersects with public policy, but also made some beneficial contributions of her own.
Johnson researched and developed a 35-page paper on an even bigger topic – the power and wealth inequality among tech workers that has accelerated with the rapid advancement of technology.
“In my paper, I advance the argument that as automation continues to displace workers, who are then unable to get into new jobs, few programs are available to help them,” says Johnson. “At the same time, these displaced people are fearful and angry about the technologies displacing them. There’s no structure to help these individuals, and they have no control over what will happen to them.”
She points out that the jobs being eliminated because of automation are entry-level and require little prior knowledge. Thus, workers without college degrees – those usually on the lower end of the socio-economic scale – are the ones most affected by wealth inequality.
Johnson says that such countries as Germany and Sweden have enacted retraining programs, and also have vocal labor movements. For example, she points to a Swedish program that is reeducating truck drivers for other jobs.
“Most jobs created from automation will be new-collar jobs,” she says. “These are the jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree, but do demand technical and soft skills that can be learned through vocational training and industry certification programs.”
In the paper she titled, “Wage against the Machine,” Johnson makes several proposals. Among them, she suggests a national retraining program, implemented by the U.S. Department of Labor, with training conducted through collaborative programs between education and industry. She also outlines a national innovation system that would be facilitated through such organizations as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
To help in researching her WISE paper and presentation, Johnson developed valuable connections with a number of individuals and organizations in Washington, D.C. Just one was Mina Hanna, who chairs IEEE-USA’s Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems Policy Committee, and co-chairs the IEEE Standards Association Policy Committee of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of A/I Systems. Johnson describes an IEEE-USA-sponsored Capitol Hill briefing about ethics in artificial intelligence, which Hanna moderated, as a highlight of her WISE internship.
Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), a nationwide organization of individuals in and around the technology industry, provided her with information and inspired her to become involved. Johnson attended in-person meetings in the D.C. area this past summer. She is continuing to participate though TWC’s regular conference calls.
An IEEE Student Member, Jillian Johnson is active in CBU’s IEEE Student Branch, and she currently chairs its Professional Awareness Committee. She is also the Region 3 IEEE Student Representative. She first learned about the WISE program when she attended 2018 Southeastcon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Diana Librizzi, Program Administrator, IEEE-USA Career and Professional Activities, told Johnson about the WISE internship opportunity, and urged her to apply.
Near the conclusion of her internship in late July, Johnson observed that a front-row seat to seeing how government works had been a great opportunity. “Government moves much slower than I’d expected,” she said, “but we’re all affected by government policies; and learning the structure, as well as how things get done, was very meaningful. I’m also taking a lot of wonderful memories back with me.”
A native of Munford, Tennessee, just north of Memphis, Johnson says her WISE internship was her first trip to our Nation’s capital. Besides visiting museums and attending music events and art shows with the other interns, she also made time to volunteer every Saturday. At the D.C. collective, Food Not Bombs — Johnson helped to prepare meals for the homeless, and other disadvantaged inner-city residents, from fresh produce donated by local grocers.
“It was a great way to meet people and get involved with the community,” she notes.
What’s next for Jillian Johnson? “I have several options, including pursuing a Ph.D. in cognition and perception psychology,” she says. But with a range of technical interests that includes consciousness, systems analysis, post-structuralism, artificial general intelligence and information theory, one fact is clear: We’ll be hearing much more about this talented Student Member who wants to improve the lives of others.
IEEE Student members who are interested in spending a summer in Washington, D.C., learning how engineers and scientists can contribute to the legislative process and regulatory decision-making, should consider applying for the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program. The deadline to apply is 31 December.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.