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.


The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has released an amazing new report focused on, “Assessing the Risks of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System.” In what the Wall Street Journal rightly refers to as an “unusually strongly worded report,” the group of experts assembled by the National Academies call for a sea change in regulatory attitudes and policies toward regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (or “drones”) and the nation’s airspace more generally.

The report uses the term “conservative” or “overly conservative” more than a dozen times to describe the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) problematic current approach toward drones. They point out that the agency has “a culture with a near-zero tolerance for risk,” and that the agency needs to adjust that culture to take into account “the various ways in which this new technology may reduce risk and save lives.” (Ch. S, p.2) The report continues on to say that:

The committee concluded that “fear of making a mistake” drives a risk culture at the FAA that is too often overly conservative, particularly with regard to UAS technologies, which do not pose a direct threat to human life in the same way as technologies used in manned aircraft. An overly conservative attitude can take many forms. For example, FAA risk avoidance behavior is often rewarded, even when it is excessively risk averse, and rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. Balanced risk decisions can be discounted, and FAA staff may conclude that allowing new risk could endanger their careers even when that risk is so minimal that it does not exceed established safety standards.  The committee concluded that a better measure for the FAA to apply is to ask the question, “Can we make UAS as safe as other background risks that people experience daily?” As the committee notes, we do not ground airplanes because birds fly in the airspace, although we know birds can and do bring down aircraft.

[. . . ]

In many cases, the focus has been on “What might go wrong?” instead of a holistic risk picture: “What is the net risk/benefit?” Closely related to this is what the committee considers to be paralysis wherein ever more data are often requested to address every element of uncertainty in a new technology. Flight experience cannot be gained to generate these data due to overconservatism that limits approvals of these flights. Ultimately, the status quo is seen as safe. There is too little recognition that new technologies brought into the airspace by UAS could improve the safety of manned aircraft operations, or may mitigate, if not eliminate, some nonaviation risks. (p. S-2)

Importantly, the report makes it clear that the problem here is not just that “an overly conservative risk culture that overestimates the severity and the likelihood of UAS risk can be a significant barrier to introduction and development of these technologies,” but, more profoundly, the report highlights how,  “Avoiding risk entirely by setting the safety target too high creates imbalanced risk decisions and can degrade overall safety and quality of life.” (p. 3-6,7) In other words, we should want a more open and common sense-oriented approach to drones, not only to encourage more life-enriching innovation, but also because it could actually make us safer as a result.

No Reward without Some Risk

What the National Academies report is really saying here is that there can be no reward without some risk.  This is something I have spent a great deal of time writing about in my last book, a recent book chapter, and various other essays and journal articles over the past 25 years.  As I noted in my last book, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about.”  If we want a wealthier, healthier, and safer society, we must embrace change and risk-taking to get us there.

This is exactly what that National Academies report is getting at when they note that the FAA”s “overly conservative culture prevents safety beneficial operations from entering the airspace. The focus is on what might go wrong. More dialogue on potential benefits is needed to develop a holistic risk picture that addresses the question, What is the net risk/benefit?” (p. 3-10)

In other words, all safety regulation involves trade-offs, and if (to paraphrase a classic Hardin cartoon you’ll see to your right) we consider every potential risk except the risk of avoiding all risks, the result will be not only a decline in short-term innovation, but also a corresponding decline in safety and overall living standards over time.

Countless risk scholars have studied this process and come to the same conclusion. “We could virtually end all risk of failure by simply declaring a moratorium on innovation, change, and progress,” notes engineering historian Henry Petroski. But the costs to society of doing so would be catastrophic, of course. “The history of the human race would be dreary indeed if none of our forebears had ever been willing to accept risk in return for potential achievement,” observed H.L. Lewis, an expert on technological risk trade-offs.

The most important book ever written on this topic was Aaron Wildavsky’s 1988 masterpiece, Searching for Safety. Wildavsky warned of the dangers of “trial without error” reasoning and contrasted it with the trial-and-error method of evaluating risk and seeking wise solutions to it. Wildavsky argued that real wisdom is born of experience and that we can learn how to be wealthier and healthier as individuals and a society only by first being willing to embrace uncertainty and even occasional failure. As he put it:

The direct implication of trial without error is obvious: If you can do nothing without knowing first how it will turn out, you cannot do anything at all. An indirect implication of trial without error is that if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards. . . . Existing hazards will continue to cause harm if we fail to reduce them by taking advantage of the opportunity to benefit from repeated trials.

When this logic takes the form of public policy prescriptions, it is referred to as the “precautionary principle,” which generally holds that, because new ideas or technologies could pose some theoretical danger or risk in the future, public policies should control or limit the development of such innovations until their creators can prove that they won’t cause any harms.

Again, if we adopt that attitude, human safety actually suffers because it holds back beneficial experiments aimed at improving the human condition. As the great economic historian Joel Mokyr argues, “technological progress requires above all tolerance toward the unfamiliar and the eccentric.” But the regulatory status quo all too often rejects “the unfamiliar and the eccentric” out of an abundance of caution. While usually well-intentioned, that sort of status quo thinking holds back new and better was of doing old things better, or doing all new things. The end result is that real health and safety advances are ignored or forgone.

How Status Quo Thinking at the FAA Results in Less Safety

This is equally true for air safety and FAA regulation of drones. “Ultimately, the status quo is seen as safe,” the National Acadamies report notes. “There is too little recognition that new technologies brought into the airspace by UAS could improve the safety of manned aircraft operations, or may mitigate, if not eliminate, some nonaviation risks.” The example of the life-saving potential of drones have already been well-documented.

Drones have already been used to monitor fires, help with search-and-rescue missions for missing people or animals, assist life guards by dropping life vests to drowning people, deliver medicines to remote areas, and help with disaster monitoring and recovery efforts. But that really just scratches the surface in terms of their potential.

Some people scoff at the idea of drones being used to deliver small packages to our offices or homes. But consider how many of those packages are delivered by human-operated vehicles that are far more likely to be involved in dangerous traffic accidents on our over-crowded roadways. If drones were used to make some of those deliveries, we might be able to save a lot of lives. Or how about an elderly person stuck at home during storm, only to realize they are out of some essential good or medicine that is a long drive away. Are we better off having them (or someone else) get behind the wheel to drive and get it, or might a drone be able to deliver it more safely?

The authors of the National Academies report understand this, as they made clear when they concluded that, “operation of UAS has many advantages and may improve the quality of life for people around the world. Avoiding risk entirely by setting the safety target too high creates imbalanced risk decisions and can degrade overall safety and quality of life.” (Ch. 3, p. 5-6)

Reform Ideas: Use the “Innovator’s Presumption” & “Sunsetting Imperative”

Given that reality, the National Academies report makes several sensible reform recommendations aimed at countering the FAA’s hyper-conservatism and bias for the broken regulatory status quo. I won’t go through them all, but I think they are an excellent set of reforms that deserve to be taken seriously.

I do, however, want to highly recommend everyone take a close look at this one outstanding recommendation in Chapter 3, which is aimed at keep things moving and making sure that status quo thinking doesn’t freeze beneficial new forms of airspace innovation. Specifically, the National Academies report recommends that:

The FAA should meet requests for certifications or operations approvals with an initial response of “How can we approve this?” Where the FAA employs internal boards of executives throughout the agency to provide input on decisions, final responsibility and authority and accountability for the decision should rest with the executive overseeing such boards. A time limit should be placed on responses from each member of the board, and any “No” vote should be accompanied with a clearly articulated rationale and suggestion for how that “No” vote could be made a “Yes.” (Ch. 3, p. 8)

I absolutely love this reform idea because it essentially combines elements of two general innovation policy reform ideas that I discussed in my recent essay, “Converting Permissionless Innovation into Public Policy: 3 Reforms.” In that piece, I proposed the idea of instituting an “Innovator’s Presumption” that would read: “Any 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.” I also proposed a so-called “Sunsetting Imperative” that would read: “Any existing or newly imposed technology regulation should include a provision sunsetting the law or regulation within two years.”

The National Academies report recommendation above basically embodies the spirit of both the Innovator’s Presumption and the Sunsetting Imperative. It puts the burden of proof on opponents of change and then creates a sort of shot clock to keep things moving.

These are the kind of reforms we need to make sure status quo thinking at regulatory agencies doesn’t hold back life-enriching and life-saving innovations. It’s time for a change in the ways business is done at the FAA to make sure that regulations are timely, effective, and in line with common sense. Sadly, as the new National Academies report makes clear, today’s illogical policies governing airspace innovation are having counter-productive results that hurt society.

On March 19th, I had the chance to debate Franklin Foer at a Patrick Henry College event focused on the question, “Is Big Tech Big Brother?” It was billed as a debate over the role of technology in American society and whether government should be regulating media and technology platforms more generally.  [The full event video is here.] Foer is the author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, in which he advocates a fairly expansive regulatory regime for modern information technology platforms. He is open to building on regulatory ideas from the past, including broadcast-esque licensing regimes, “Fairness Doctrine”-like mandates for digital intermediaries, “fiduciary” responsibilities, beefed-up antitrust intervention, and other types of controls. In a review of the book for Reason, and then again during the debate at Patrick Henry University, I offered some reflections on what we can learn from history about how well ideas like those worked out in practice.

My closing statement of the debate, which lasted just a little over three minutes, offers a concise summation of what that history teaches us and why it would be so dangerous to repeat the mistakes of the past by wandering down that disastrous path again. That 3-minute clip is posted below. (The audience was polled before and after the event and asked the same question each time: “Do large tech companies wield too much power in our economy, media and personal lives and if so, should government(s) intervene?” Apparently at the beginning, the poll was roughly Yes – 70% and No – 30%, but after the debated ended it has reversed, with only 30% in favor of intervention and 70% against. Glad to turn around some minds on this one!)

via ytCropper

Image result for Zuckerberg Schmidt laughing

Two weeks ago, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was getting grilled by Congress during a two-day media circus set of hearings, I wrote a counterintuitive essay about how it could end up being Facebook’s greatest moment. How could that be? As I argued in the piece, with an avalanche of new rules looming, “Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.”

With the exception of probably only Google, no firm other than Facebook likely has enough lawyers, lobbyists, and money to deal with layers of red tape and corresponding regulatory compliance headaches that lie ahead. That’s true both here and especially abroad in Europe, which continues to pile on new privacy and “data protection” regulations. While such rules come wrapped in the very best of intentions, there’s just no getting around the fact that regulation has costs. In this case, the unintended consequence of well-intentioned data privacy rules is that the emerging regulatory regime will likely discourage (or potentially even destroy) the chances of getting the new types of innovation and competition that we so desperately need right now.

Others now appear to be coming around to this view. On April 23, both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ran feature articles with remarkably similar titles and themes. The New York Times article by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Adam Satariano was titled, “How Looming Privacy Regulations May Strengthen Facebook and Google,” and The Wall Street Journal’s piece, “Google and Facebook Likely to Benefit From Europe’s Privacy Crackdown,” was penned by Sam Schechner and Nick Kostov.

“In Europe and the United States, the conventional wisdom is that regulation is needed to force Silicon Valley’s digital giants to respect people’s online privacy. But new rules may instead serve to strengthen Facebook’s and Google’s hegemony and extend their lead on the internet,” note Wakabayashi and Satariano in the NYT essay. They continue on to note how “past attempts at privacy regulation have done little to mitigate the power of tech firms.” This includes regulations like Europe’s “right to be forgotten” requirement, which has essentially put Google in a privileged position as the “chief arbiter of what information is kept online in Europe.”
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On Monday, April 16th, the Technology Policy Institute hosted an event on “Facebook & Cambridge Analytica: Regulatory & Policy Implications.” I was invited to deliver some remarks on a panel that included Howard Beales of George Washington University, Stuart Ingis of Venable LLP, Josephine Wolff of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Thomas Lenard of TPI, who moderated. I offered some thoughts about the potential trade-offs associated with treating Facebook like a regulated public utility. I wrote an essay here last week on that topic. My remarks at the event begin at the 13:45 mark of the video.

 

With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in town this week for a political flogging, you might think that this is darkest hour for the social networking giant. Facebook stands at a regulatory crossroads, to be sure. But allow me to offer a cynical take, and one based on history: Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.

By slowly capitulating to critics (both here and abroad) who are thirsty for massive regulation of the data-driven economy, Facebook is setting itself up as a servant of the state. In the name of satisfying some amorphous political “public interest” standard and fulfilling a variety of corporate responsibility objectives, Facebook will gradually allow itself to be converted into a sort of digital public utility or electronic essential facility.

That sounds like trouble for the firm until you realize that Facebook is one of the few companies who will be able to sacrifice a pound of flesh like that and remain alive. As layers of new regulatory obligations are applied, barriers to new innovations will become formidable obstacles to the very competitors that the public so desperately needs right now to offer us better alternatives. Gradually, Facebook will recognize this and go along with the regulatory schemes. And then eventually they will become the biggest defender of all of it.

Welcome to Facebook’s broadcast industry moment. The firm is essentially in the same position the broadcast sector was about a century ago when it started cozying up to federal lawmakers. Over time, broadcasters would warmly embrace an expansive licensing regime that would allow all parties—regulatory advocates, academics, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and even the broadcasters themselves—to play out the fairy tale that broadcasters would be good “public stewards” of the “public airwaves” to serve the “public interest.”

Alas, the actual listening and viewing public got royally shafted in this deal. Continue reading →

By Adam Thierer and Jennifer Huddleston Skees

There was horrible news from Tempe, Arizona this week as a pedestrian was struck and killed by a driverless car owned by Uber. This is the first fatality of its type and is drawing widespread media attention as a result. According to both police statements and Uber itself, the investigation into the accident is ongoing and Uber is assisting in the investigation. While this certainly is a tragic event, we cannot let it cost us the life-saving potential of autonomous vehicles.

While any fatal traffic accident involving a driverless car is certainly sad, we can’t ignore the fact that each and every day in the United States letting human beings drive on public roads is proving far more dangerous. This single event has led some critics to wonder why we were allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads at all before they have been proven to be 100% safe. Driverless cars can help reverse a public health disaster decades in the making, but only if policymakers allow real-world experimentation to continue.

Let’s be more concrete about this: Each day, Americans take 1.1 billion trips driving 11 billion miles in vehicles that weigh on average between 1.5 and 2 tons. Sadly, about 100 people die  and over 6,000 are injured each day in car accidents. 94% of these accidents have been shown to be attributable to human error and this deadly trend has been increasing as we become more distracted while driving. Moreover, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 6000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2016, which means there was roughly one crash-related pedestrian death every 1.6 hours. In Arizona, the issue is even more pronounced with the state ranked 6th worst for pedestrians and the Phoenix area ranked the 16th worst metro for such accidents nationally. Continue reading →

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 →