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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson is awarded a lifetime achievement award by Gov. Gary Herbert in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 6, 2018 at the Utah Technology Innovation Summit.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and current Utah U.S. Senate candidate, covered global politics, Moore's Law and concerns over the national debt and federal protectionism in his keynote speech Wednesday at an annual technology summit.

He also touched on some tech-centric topics, reaching back on his experience both as a state executive and former equity investment professional.

And, he managed to slip in some wry anecdotes from his political past for the standing-room only crowd gathered at the Marriott Downtown at City Creek for the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative's 2018 Technology and Innovation Summit.

"As soon as I became a governor, another Republican tried to poach away (from Massachusetts) good jobs and good companies," Romney said. "This was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He put up billboards around Massachusetts that had him in a T-shirt, flexing his muscles, that said, 'Come to California.' Not to be outdone, I put up billboards outside the airport in his state, with me in a T-shirt flexing my muscles, that said, 'Come to Massachusetts — Smaller muscles, but much lower taxes!'"

Another highlight from the event was the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Nelson, before becoming the 17th president of the LDS Church, earned global recognition through his career as a researcher, teacher and surgeon specializing in cardiac procedures. The numerous milestones achieved by President Nelson include performing the first open-heart surgical procedure in Utah in 1955, performing the first open-heart procedure using an extracorporeal (outside the body) circulation technique, and performing the first successful pediatric open-heart procedure in the state.

USTAR Executive Director Ivy Estabrooke said the summit, in its third year, is aimed at bringing entrepreneurs and researchers together to network with their peers, as well as policymakers, to explore the best pathways to success.

"It's really an opportunity for the innovation community here in Utah to get together to talk about the pragmatic things like how you raise capital, set up a government structure, build strategic partnerships," Estabrooke said. "But, it's also to have the broader conversation around what is the role of government in science and innovation and how important it is as an economic driver."

Romney took a global perspective when talking about technological competition, noting China, Russia and jihadists as the main challengers to U.S. advancement. Romney said the ace-in-the-hole for American concerns was they are the only ones operating from a non-authoritarian basis.

"Only one has its strategy based on personal freedom," Romney said. "Ours. The one great question is whether an authoritarian nation can compete with a world of modern technology."

Romney also called out some recent actions by President Donald Trump, though he never mentioned the president by name.

"I'm also concerned that we have a growing sense of protectionism," Romney said. "Protecting old enterprises instead of investing in new."

Romney introduced multiple programs aimed at amping up the innovation sector during his four years as Massachusetts' chief executive and spent decades in the private financial sector, including as CEO of Bain Capital overseeing equity investments in companies specializing in emerging technologies.

One emerging technology featured in a summit breakout session was the quickly evolving realm of autonomous vehicle technology. Rep. Robert Spendlove, R- Sandy, who has been a champion of updating Utah legislation to make way for new technologies, moderated a panel that brought academics and entrepreneurs together to discuss the future of autonomous advancements.

Panel member Devin Stewart, corporate general manager for Logan-based Autonomous Solutions, Inc., said many people may be missing how effectively automation is being implemented in industrial uses, with the amount of coverage devoted to commuter vehicle issues.

"A lot of attention is on the passenger vehicles, but in industrial fields there is a lot of advancement in turning manned equipment into unmanned equipment," Stewart said. "It is the most successful sector at our company."

The panel was in consensus that the transition from a human-operated world to one run by autonomous systems powered by digital artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms was not one that would occur overnight. And, for the near-term anyway, humans would still need to be a part of the mix.

"The person is still in the equation, but being served by the car," said Dan Patt, CEO of Vecna Robotics. "It's not as simple as a machine doing what a person did...it's going to take a while to sort this out. Machines won't just replace people. It will be more subtle impacts."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was in attendance Wednesday to celebrate Utah's technology successes and help honor President Nelson, as well as three other honorees. Herbert also dropped a surprise announcement on the 300-plus in attendance, naming Estabrooke as the official Utah science adviser to the governor, an appointment the governor noted was "effective immediately."

Herbert said that thanks to advancements, the "good ol' days" aren't to be found by looking back, but are those happening right now.

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"We have better lives, less drudgery, higher quality and better health, cleaner air, cleaner water ... because of innovation in science and technology," Herbert said. "That's what we're celebrating here today."

Other award recipients included George Hansen, co-founder of advanced materials company The Conductive Group, for creating critical tech jobs; University of Utah researcher Dr. Dana Carroll for pioneering work in genomic engineering; and Davis County School District STEM Director Tyson Grover for promoting and advancing science and technology education.