UCLA professor John Villasenor is an electrical engineer who teaches in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Luskin School of Public Affairs. He is also a widely published writer on the intersection of technology and public policy, having written columns about drones, privacy and intellectual property, among other topics.
In an edited Q&A, UCLA Today’s Mike Fricano recently asked Villasenor how he became an expert in the public policy aspects of technology and why engineers should be part of that conversation.
What’s your research specialty?
My work involves information. I’m interested in how it gets acquired, measured, processed, stored, secured and moved from one place to another. I’m interested not only in the engineering aspects of information processing, but also in the broader societal impacts, including the policy and legal questions that get raised as computing and communications technologies continue to advance.
Specific areas I’ve been studying over the last few years include cybersecurity, virtual currencies and emerging payment methods, cloud computing, drones, wireless mobile devices, medical imaging, digital media processing and digital copyright policy. This might initially look like a grab bag of unrelated topics, but there is a connection: Each one ties directly to information.
What drove you to explore this intersection of technology and public policy?
People often express surprise when I tell them I have faculty appointments in both engineering and public policy, but to me it’s an obvious combination. So many of the systems and devices that engineers spend time designing and building have such a profound impact on the broader culture. Every day in the news there are stories that involve technology public policy. I find it surprising that there aren’t more people with engineering backgrounds working at this intersection.
What do engineers add to the conversation?
The technology policy questions we’re facing these days are really hard. If we’re going to solve them, it’s important to have people with technological expertise at the table. We already have very valuable engagement on these questions from legislators, legal scholars, economists and others. People with engineering training can add to the discussion by bringing a set of complementary perspectives.
How did you end up becoming involved in the Luskin School of Public Affairs?
Back in 2011 I approached the department of public policy in the Luskin school and expressed my interest in creating and teaching a new course on technology public policy. It’s an area that I considered to be extremely important and where I wanted to contribute. Professor Al Carnesale, who has been on the public policy faculty since stepping down as chancellor, was also interested, so he and I teamed together to create the course. We’re now teaching it for the third time.
In addition, I’ve also broadened my engagement beyond teaching. This academic year I helped launch a new program in the Luskin Center for Innovation called the Digital Technologies Initiative. As part of that initiative, we’ve held a series of very successful panel sessions on topics including “The Future of Digital Music Delivery,” “Digital Media in the Age of the Cloud” and “Crowdsourcing, Paywalls, and the Future of News.” Later this academic year we’re hosting panels on preventing technology-facilitated exploitation and on creating a digitally fluent workforce. These panels are providing an opportunity for students, faculty, companies and others to interact with some of the country’s top experts on these important topics.
What classes do you teach?
This year, I’m teaching in three different schools at UCLA. During the fall, I taught a graduate-level electrical engineering course, “Digital Image Processing,” addressing the mathematical and computational frameworks involved in image representation and communications. When I first created and taught the course back in the early 1990s, there weren’t a lot of digital images. Today, they are everywhere, so the things we cover in the course are particularly relevant to the devices and systems we all now use to access digital media.
This quarter, I’m co-teaching a science and technology public policy course in the Luskin School with professor Carnesale. As I told the students recently, it might be the most diverse course on campus in terms of students represented. We’ve got students from public affairs, law, management, engineering, medicine and the College of Letters and Science. We cover a set of critically important topics, including digital privacy, climate change, drones, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation and genetic testing. Many of these topics are in the news on a nearly daily basis, so the context for the course is literally evolving as the quarter progresses.
In the spring, I’ll be teaching a course in the UCLA Anderson School of Management called “Intellectual Property for Technology Entrepreneurs and Managers.” We’ll be covering the four categories of intellectual property — patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets — with specific emphasis on their application to technology products and markets. The course is designed to provide technology managers with the tools to formulate intellectual property strategies appropriate for a globalized marketplace.
How did you get into writing for broader interest publications such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, Forbes and Slate?
Academics spend a lot of time writing highly technical articles for highly specialized journals. With rare exceptions, those publications are read by very small numbers of people. If you want to contribute to the larger dialogue, you’ve got to publish in venues with a more diversified audience.
What’s been the most rewarding part about doing so much writing?
Interestingly, I find that writing for a general readership is actually harder and in many ways more interesting than writing for academic audiences. People who read academic articles are typically specialists. They already know most of the background and context, so they’re better prepared to fill in gaps in the narrative.
By contrast, non-specialist readers are much less forgiving in that respect. If you are writing about a complex concept for non-specialists, you have to make sure that you present it in a way that retains some of its complexity while also being accessible to people who may not have years of training in your particular discipline. I’ve found that to be a very challenging task. But, it’s also a rewarding one.