The upcoming technology policy debate

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STANFORD – In 2016, during the presidential campaign in the United States, defamatory correspondence was leaked from hacked servers of the Democratic National Committee. What does this event have in common with the deafening sirens that lasted for over an hour in Dallas, Texas?  All of this is the negative side of new technologies, which in general are incredibly useful. Threats like these urgently call for a decisive political response.

An example of growing frustration over new technologies is the debate over so-called “net neutrality,” and the dispute between Apple and the FBI over the unlocking of iPhone phones from terror suspects. All this is not surprising. Technology is gaining in importance, and it affects everything from our security (nuclear weapons and cyber warfare) to our workplaces (radical changes in the labor market due to the introduction of advanced software and robotics). This influence can be good, bad, and potentially even dire.

First, about the good. Thanks to technology, it has been possible to completely eradicate a number of diseases, for example, smallpox, and almost completely – a number of others, for example, poliomyelitis. Technology made it possible to start space exploration. The speed of transport has increased. New perspectives have opened up in the industry of finance, entertainment and many others. The introduction of crop rotation and mechanized equipment has dramatically increased agricultural productivity, allowing human civilization to move from farms to cities. Even literally in 1900, a third of Americans lived on farms, and today there are only 2% of them.

In industry, productivity has also increased significantly thanks to electrification, automation, software adoption, and more recently, robotization. My colleague Larry Lau and I have calculated that roughly half of all G7 economic growth in recent decades has come from technological innovation.

Pessimists fear that the positive impact of technology on productivity growth is waning and unlikely to intensify again. For them, technologies such as Internet search and social networking are not capable of generating productivity gains as powerful as electrification or the advent of automobiles.

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On the contrary, optimists believe that the advent of Big Data, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence heralds a new era of technological progress. It’s impossible to predict what the next breakthrough from these technologies will be, but optimists say there’s no reason to believe it won’t. Sometimes important technological discoveries gained their main commercial value through use in areas that their inventors did not even think about.

The goal of Guglielmo Marconi’s work on long-distance radio transmission was to create a competitor to telegraph communications; Marconi did not foresee the advent of radio broadcasting or modern wireless communications.

However, technological change has led to significant changes in the labor market, harming many people. In the early 19th century, fear of these changes forced the textile workers of Yorkshire and Lancashire (“Luddites”) to break new machines – automated looms and knitting frames.

These changes in the labor market continue today: in developed countries, robotization is destroying some of the jobs in industry. Many fear the emergence of artificial intelligence will make matters worse, although it may not be as dire as some have suggested.  But this did not happen, because new types of jobs appeared, compensating for the disappeared ones.

Either way, the disappearance of jobs is not the only negative side effect of new technologies.  Cable TV, the Internet and social media have provided people with unprecedented opportunities to receive and share information; however, they also contributed to the so-called “Balkanization” of information and social communication, as people began to choose sources of information and networks that reinforce their personal biases.

Moreover, modern information technology is dominated by only a few companies. For example, Google has become literally synonymous with the phrase “Internet search”. Previously, in similar cases of concentration of economic power, countermeasures were taken due to fear of monopolies. Indeed, these companies are already beginning to come under close scrutiny from the anti-monopoly

All these threats and negative consequences require a clear political response that takes into account not only the past and present, but also the future. All too often, governments become bogged down in local, momentary debates like the FBI-Apple dispute, overlooking future risks and challenges. This can lead to some really terrible accidents, such as a cyberattack that will disable the power grid. In addition to immediate negative consequences, such an incident could lead citizens to demand too tight restrictions on technology, which would jeopardize freedom and prosperity due to the desire for security.

In reality, new, improved institutions and policies are required, and cooperation between law enforcement and private companies, as well as between governments of different countries, is needed. In this work, it is necessary not only to react to current events, but also to anticipate them.