Articles by Adam Thierer

Adam ThiererAdam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


We hear a lot these days about “technological moonshots.” It’s an interesting phrase because the meaning of both words in it are often left undefined. I won’t belabor the point about how people define–or, rather, fail to define–“technology” when they use it. I’ve already spent a lot of time writing about that problem. See, for example, this constantly updated essay here about “Defining ‘Technology.'” It’s a compendium I began curating years ago that collects what dozens of others have had to say on the matter. I’m always struck by how many different definitions are out there that I keep unearthing.

The term “moonshots” has a similar problem. The first meaning is the literal one that hearkens back to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 “we choose to go to the moon” speech. That use of the terms implies large government programs and agencies, centralized control, and top-down planning with a very specific political objective in mind. Increasingly, however, the term “moonshot” is used more generally, as I note in this new Mercatus essay about “Making the World Safe for More Moonshots.”  My Mercatus Center colleague Donald Boudreaux has referred to moonshots as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems,” and  Mike Cushing of Enterprise Innovation defines a moonshot as an “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.” I like that more generic use of the term and think it could be used appropriately when discussing the big innovations many of us hope to see in fields as diverse as quantum computing, genetic editing, AI and autonomous systems, supersonic transport, and much more. I still have some reservations about the term, but I think it’s definitely a better term than “disruptive innovation,” which is also used differently by various scholars and pundits.

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Reason magazine recently published my review of Franklin Foer’s new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. My review begins as follows:

If you want to sell a book about tech policy these days, there’s an easy formula to follow.

First you need a villain. Google and Facebook should suffice, but if you can throw in Apple, Amazon, or Twitter, that’s even better. Paint their CEOs as either James Bond baddies bent on world domination or naive do-gooders obsessed with the quixotic promise of innovation.

Finally, come up with a juicy Chicken Little title. Maybe something like World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Wait—that one’s taken. It’s the title of Franklin Foer’s latest book, which follows this familiar techno-panic template almost perfectly.

The book doesn’t break a lot of new ground; it serves up the same old technopanicky tales of gloom-and-doom that many others have said will befall us unless something is done to save us. But Foer’s unique contribution is to unify many diverse strands of modern tech criticism in one tome, and then amp up the volume of panic about it all. Hence, the “existential” threat in the book’s title. I bet you didn’t know the End Times were so near!

Read the rest of my review over at Reason. And, if you care to read some of my other essays on technopanics through the ages, here’s a compendium of them.

Over at Plain Text, I have posted a new essay entitled, “Converting Permissionless Innovation into Public Policy: 3 Reforms.” It’s a preliminary sketch of some reform ideas that I have been working on as part of my next book project. The goal is to find some creative ways to move the ball forward on the innovation policy front, regardless of what level of government we are talking about.

To maximize the potential for ongoing, positive change and create a policy environment conducive to permissionless innovation, I argue that policymakers should pursue policy reforms based on these three ideas:

  1. The Innovator’s PresumptionAny person or party (including a regulatory authority) who opposes a new technology or service shall have the burden to demonstrate that such proposal is inconsistent with the public interest.
  2. The Sunsetting ImperativeAny existing or newly imposed technology regulation should include a provision sunsetting the law or regulation within two years.
  3. The Parity ProvisionAny operator offering a similarly situated product or service should be regulated no more stringently than its least regulated competitor.

These provisions are crafted in a somewhat generic fashion in the hope that these reform proposals could be modified and adopted by various legislative or regulatory bodies. If you are interested in reading more details about each proposal, jump over to Plain Text to read the entire essay.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper on,”Permissionless Innovation and Immersive Technology: Public Policy for Virtual and Augmented Reality,” which I co-authored with Jonathan Camp. This 53-page paper can be downloaded via the Mercatus websiteSSRN or Research Gate.

Here is the abstract for the paper:

Immersive technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality are finally taking off. As these technologies become more widespread, concerns will likely develop about their disruptive social and economic effects. This paper addresses such policy concerns and contrasts two different visions for governing immersive tech going forward. The paper makes the case for permissionless innovation, or the general freedom to innovate without prior constraint, as the optimal policy default to maximize the benefits associated with immersive technologies.

The alternative vision — the so-called precautionary principle — would be an inappropriate policy default because it would greatly limit the potential for beneficial applications and uses of these new technologies to emerge rapidly. Public policy for immersive technology should not be based on hypothetical worst-case scenarios. Rather, policymakers should wait to see which concerns or harms emerge and then devise ex post solutions as needed.

To better explain why precautionary controls on these emerging technologies would be such a mistake, Camp and I provide an inventory of the many VR, AR, and mixed reality applications that are already on the market–or soon could be–and which could provide society with profound benefits. A few examples include:  Continue reading →

Are you interested in emerging technologies and the public policy issues surrounding them? Then come to work with me at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University!

The Mercatus Center is currently looking to hire a new Senior Research Fellow in our Technology Policy Program. Our tech policy team covers a large and growing array of cutting-edge issues, including: robotics, AI, and autonomous vehicles; commercial drones; the Internet of Things; virtual reality; cryptocurrencies; the Sharing Economy; 3D printing; and advanced medical and health technologies, just to name a few current priorities.

But the most exciting—but challenging—thing about covering tech policy is that the landscape of issues and concerns is always morphing and growing. Our new Senior Research Fellow will help our team determine our tech policy priorities going forward and then be responsible for engaging in scholarly work and public speaking on those topics.

All the finer details about this new position are listed on the Mercatus website. If you’re interested and qualified, please apply! Or, if you know of others who might be interested in this position, please forward this notice along to them.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper on, “Artificial Intelligence and Public Policy,” which I co-authored with Andrea Castillo O’Sullivan and Raymond Russell. This 54-page paper can be downloaded via the Mercatus website, SSRN, or ResearchGate. Here is the abstract:

There is growing interest in the market potential of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and applications as well as in the potential risks that these technologies might pose. As a result, questions are being raised about the legal and regulatory governance of AI, machine learning, “autonomous” systems, and related robotic and data technologies. Fearing concerns about labor market effects, social inequality, and even physical harm, some have called for precautionary regulations that could have the effect of limiting AI development and deployment. In this paper, we recommend a different policy framework for AI technologies. At this nascent stage of AI technology development, we think a better case can be made for prudence, patience, and a continuing embrace of “permissionless innovation” as it pertains to modern digital technologies. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated, and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.

My professional life is dedicated to researching the public policy implications of various emerging technologies. Of the many issues and sectors that I cover, none are more interesting or important than advanced medical innovation. After all, new health care technologies offer the greatest hope for improving human welfare and longevity. Consequently, the public policies that govern these technologies and sectors will have an important bearing on just how much life-enriching or life-saving medical innovation we actually get going forward.

Few people are doing better reporting on the intersection of advanced technology and medicine — as well as the effects of regulation on those fields — than my Mercatus Center colleague Jordan Reimschisel. In a very short period of time, Jordan has completely immersed himself in these complex, cutting-edge topics and produced a remarkable body of work discussing how, in his words, “technology can merge with medicine to democratize medical decision making, empower patients to participate in the treatment process, and promote better health outcomes for more patients at lower and lower costs.” He gets deep into the weeds of the various technologies he writes about as well as the legal, ethical, and economic issues surrounding each topic.

I encouraged him to start an ongoing compendium of his work on these topics so that we could continue to highlight his research, some of which I have been honored to co-author with him. I have listed his current catalog down below, but jump over to this Medium page he set up and bookmark it for future reference. This is some truly outstanding work and I am excited to see where he goes next with topics as wide-ranging as “biohackerspaces,” democratized or “personalized” medicine, advanced genetic testing and editing techniques, and the future of the FDA in an age of rapid change.

Give Jordan a follow on Twitter (@jtreimschisel) and make sure to follow his Medium page for his dispatches from the front lines of the debate over advanced medical innovation and its regulation.

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If the techno-pessimists are right and robots are set to take all the jobs, shouldn’t employment in Amazon warehouses be plummeting right now? After all, Amazon’s sorting and fulfillment centers have been automated at a rapid pace, with robotic technologies now being integrated into almost every facet of the process. (Just watch the video below to see it all in action.)

And yet according to this Wall Street Journal story by Laura Stevens, Amazon is looking to immediately fill 50,000 new jobs, which would mean that its U.S. workforce “would swell to around 300,000, compared with 30,000 in 2011.”  According to the article, “Nearly 40,000 of the promised jobs are full-time at the company’s fulfillment centers, including some facilities that will open in the coming months. Most of the remainder are part-time positions available at Amazon’s more than 30 sorting centers.”

How can this be? Shouldn’t the robots have eaten all those jobs by now?

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“Responsible research and innovation,” or “RRI,” has become a major theme in academic writing and conferences about the governance of emerging technologies. RRI might be considered just another variant of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and it indeed borrows from that heritage. What makes RRI unique, however, is that it is more squarely focused on mitigating the potential risks that could be associated with various technologies or technological processes. RRI is particularly concerned with “baking-in” certain values and design choices into the product lifecycle before new technologies are released into the wild.

In this essay, I want to consider how RRI lines up with the opposing technological governance regimes of “permissionless innovation” and the “precautionary principle.” More specifically, I want to address the question of whether “permissionless innovation” and “responsible innovation” are even compatible. While participating in recent university seminars and other tech policy events, I have encountered a certain degree of skepticism—and sometimes outright hostility—after suggesting that, properly understood, “permissionless innovation” and “responsible innovation” are not warring concepts and that RRI can co-exist peacefully with a legal regime that adopts permissionless innovation as its general tech policy default. Indeed, the application of RRI lessons and recommendations can strengthen the case for adopting a more “permissionless” approach to innovation policy in the United States and elsewhere. Continue reading →

Whatever you want to call them–autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, automated systems, unmanned systems, connected cars, piloteless vehicles, etc.–the life-saving potential of this new class of technologies has been shown to be potentially enormous. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and writing about these issues, and I have yet to see any study forecast the opposite (i.e., a net loss of lives due to these technologies.) While the estimated life savings vary, the numbers are uniformly positive across the board, and not just in terms of lives saved, but also for reductions in other injuries, property damage, and aggregate social costs associated with vehicular accidents more generally.

To highlight these important and consistent findings, I asked my research assistant Melody Calkins to help me compile a list of recent studies on this issue and summarize the key takeaways of each one regarding at least the potential for lives saved. The studies and findings are listed below in reverse chronological order of publication. I may try to add to this over time, so please feel free to shoot me suggested updates as they become available.

Needless to say, these findings would hopefully have some bearing on public policy toward these technologies. Namely, we should be taking steps to accelerate this transition and removing roadblocks to the driverless car revolution because we could be talking about the biggest public health success story of our lifetime if we get policy right here. Every day matters because each day we delay this transition is another day during which 90 people die in car crashes and more than 6,500 will be injured. And sadly, those numbers are going up, not down. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), auto crashes and the roadway death toll is climbing for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, the agency estimated that 94 percent of all crashes are attributable to human error. We have the potential to do something about this tragedy, but we have to get public policy right. Delay is not an option.

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