A Measured Approach to Regulating Fast-Changing Tech

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Amid the economic upheaval caused by Covid-19, technology-driven disruption continues to transform nearly every business at an accelerating pace, from entertainment to shopping to how we work and go to school. Though the crisis may be temporary, many changes in consumer behavior are likely permanent.

Well before the pandemic, however, industries and their supply chains were already being revolutionized by several emerging technologies, including 5G networks, artificial intelligence, and advanced robotics, all of which make possible new products and services that are both better and cheaper than current offerings. That kind of “big bang” disruption can quickly and repeatedly rewrite the rules of engagement for incumbents and new entrants alike. But is the world changing too fast? And, if so, are governments capable of regulating the pace and trajectory of disruption?

The answers to those questions vary by industry, of course. That’s because the innovations driving what many refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution are as varied as the enterprises affected. In my recent book, Pivot to the Future, my co-authors and I identified ten transformative technologies with the greatest potential to generate new value for consumers, which is the only measure of progress that really matters.  They are: extended reality, cloud computing, 3D printing, advanced human-computer interactions, quantum computing, edge and fog computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain, and smart robotics.

Some of these disruptors, such as blockchain, robotics, 3D printing and the Internet of things, are already in early commercial use. For others, the potential applications may be even more compelling, though the business cases for reaching them are less obvious. Today, for example, only the least risk-adverse investors are funding development in virtual reality, edge computing, and new user interface technologies that interpret and respond to brainwaves.

Complicating both investment and adoption of transformative technologies is the fact that the applications with the biggest potential to change the world will almost certainly be built on unanticipated combinations of several novel and mature innovations. Think of the way ride-sharing services require existing GPS services, mobile networks, and devices, or how video conferencing relies on home broadband networks and high-definition displays. Looking at just a few of the most exciting examples of things to come make clear just how unusual the next generation of disruptive combinations will be, and how widespread their potential impact on business-as-usual:

  • Health Care: Low-cost sensors and increasingly advanced 3D printing are revolutionizing artificial limbs, providing cost-effective, bespoke prosthetics that are improving outcomes for patients including wounded veterans, survivors of strokes, and injured athletes. In the long-term, customized replacement organs, skin, and other tissue may become commonplace.
  • Housing: The next-generation 5G mobile networks, sensors, and artificial intelligence that make up the Internet of Things will improve energy efficiency and security in communities of all sizes. In the home, the IoT is helping older populations age in place longer and more safely. Applications will remind seniors when to take medications, keep them connected to family, friends, and entertainment, and allow for remote health monitoring and treatment.
  • Agriculture: A combination of drones, robots, AI, advanced geolocation services, and cloud computing pushed to the edge of the network is expected to revolutionize farming, improving yields and reducing waste in fertilizer, water, and other key inputs. Farmers will soon have up-to-the-minute data analytics that evaluate soil conditions, animal health, weather patterns, and market changes, helping to feed growing global populations more affordably and sustainably.
  • Transportation: Self-driving cars and trucks will not only relieve the boredom and stress of traffic jams and road works, but, combined with Internet-connected roads, traffic lights, and other infrastructure, will save both time and fuel. The true potential of autonomous vehicle technology, however, is more profound. In the U.S. alone, nearly 40,000 people lose their lives each year in traffic fatalities, most caused by driver error. Learning algorithms in autonomous vehicles will soon overtake the abilities of most human operators, if they haven’t already. Safer roads and more predictable traffic flows will transform insurance, vehicle design and manufacturing, and public safety, to name just a few.

Regulating the Revolution

Unfortunately, not every application of transformational technology is as obviously beneficial to individuals or society as a whole. Every one of the emerging technologies we identified (and plenty of those already in mainstream use) come with potential negative side — effects that may, in some cases, outweigh the benefits. Often, these costs are both hard to predict and difficult to measure.

As disruption accelerates, so too does anxiety about its unintended consequences, feeding what futurist Alvin Toffler first referred to half a century ago as “Future Shock.” Tech boosters and critics alike are increasingly appealing to governments to intervene, both to promote the most promising innovations and, at the same time, to solve messy social and political conflicts aggravated by the technology revolution.

On the plus side, governments continue to support research and development of emerging technologies, serving as trial users of the most novel applications. The White House, for example, recently committed over $1 billion for continued exploration of leading-edge innovation in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The Federal Communications Commission has just concluded one its most successful auctions yet for mobile radio frequencies, clearing bandwidth once considered useless for commercial use but now seen as central to nationwide 5G deployments. Palantir, a data analytics company that works closely with governments to assess terrorism and other complex risks, has just filed for a public offering that values the start-up at over $40 billion.

At the same time, a regulatory backlash against technology continues to gain momentum, with concerns about surveillance, the digital divide, privacy, and disinformation leading lawmakers to consider restricting or even banning some of the most popular applications. And the increasingly strategic importance of continued innovation to global competitiveness and national security has fueled increasingly nasty trade disputes, including some between the U.S., China, and the European Union.

Together with on-going antitrust inquiries into the competitive behavior of leading technology providers, these negative reactions underscore what author Adam Thierer sees as the growing prevalence of “techno-panics” — generalized fears about personal autonomy, the fate of democratic government, and perhaps even apocalyptic outcomes from letting some emerging technologies run free.

Disruptive innovation is not a panacea, but nor is it a poison. As technology transforms more industries and becomes the dominant driver of the global economy, it is inevitable both that users will grow more ambivalent, and, as a result, that regulators will become more involved. If, as a popular metaphor of the 1990’s had it, the digital economy began as a lawless frontier akin to the American West, it’s no surprise that as settlements grow socially complex and economically powerful, the law will continue to play catch up, likely for better and for worse.

But rather than panic, regulators need to step back, and balance costs and benefits rationally. That’s the only way we’ll achieve the exciting promise of today’s transformational technologies, but still avoid the dystopias.

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Larry Downes