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.


Policy incentives matter and have a profound affect on the innovative capacity of a nation. If policymakers erect more obstacles to innovation, it will encourage entrepreneurs to look elsewhere when considering the most hospitable place to undertake their innovative activities. This is “global innovation arbitrage,” a topic we’ve discussed many times here in the past. I’ve defined it as, “the idea that innovators can, and will with increasingly regularity, move to those jurisdictions that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” We see innovation arbitrage happening in high-tech fields as far-ranging as drones, driverless cars, and genetics,among others.

US policymakers might want to consider this danger before the nation loses its competitive advantage in various high-tech fields. Today’s most pressing example arrives in the form of potentially burdensome new export control regulations. In late 2018, the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security announced a “Review of Controls for Certain Emerging Technologies,” which launched an inquiry about whether to greatly expand the list of technologies that would be subjected to America’s complex export control regulations. Most of the long list of technologies under consideration (such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, and advanced computing technologies) were “dual-use” in nature, meaning that they have many peaceful applications.

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This week I will be traveling to Montreal to participate in the 2018 G7 Multistakeholder Conference on Artificial Intelligence. This conference follows the G7’s recent Ministerial Meeting on “Preparing for the Jobs of the Future” and will also build upon the G7 Innovation Ministers’ Statement on Artificial Intelligence. The goal of Thursday’s conference is to, “focus on how to enable environments that foster societal trust and the responsible adoption of AI, and build upon a common vision of human-centric AI.” About 150 participants selected by G7 partners are expected to participate, and I was invited to attend as a U.S. expert, which is a great honor. 

I look forward to hearing and learning from other experts and policymakers who are attending this week’s conference. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the future of AI policy in recent books, working papers, essays, and debates. My most recent essay concerning a vision for the future of AI policy was co-authored with Andrea O’Sullivan and it appeared as part of a point/counterpoint debate in the latest edition of the Communications of the ACM. The ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computing society, which “brings together computing educators, researchers, and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources, and address the field’s challenges.” The latest edition of the magazine features about a dozen different essays on “Designing Emotionally Sentient Agents” and the future of AI and machine-learning more generally.

In our portion of the debate in the new issue, Andrea and I argue that “Regulators Should Allow the Greatest Space for AI Innovation.” “While AI-enabled technologies can pose some risks that should be taken seriously,” we note, “it is important that public policy not freeze the development of life-enriching innovations in this space based on speculative fears of an uncertain future.” We contrast two different policy worldviews — the precautionary principle versus permissionless innovation — and argue that:

artificial intelligence technologies should largely be governed by a policy regime of permissionless innovation so that humanity can best extract all of the opportunities and benefits they promise. A precautionary approach could, alternatively, rob us of these life-saving benefits and leave us all much worse off.

That’s not to say that AI won’t pose some serious policy challenges for us going forward that deserve serious attention. Rather, we are warning against the dangers of allowing worst-case thinking to be the default position in these discussions. Continue reading →

By Adam Thierer & Jennifer Huddleston Skees

He’s making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”

With the Christmas season approaching, apparently it’s not just Santa who is making a list. The Trump Administration has just asked whether a long list of emerging technologies are naughty or nice — as in whether they should be heavily regulated or allowed to be developed and traded freely.

If they land on the naughty list, these technologies could be subjected to complex export control regulations, which would limit research and development efforts in many emerging tech fields and inadvertently undermine U.S. innovation and competitiveness. Worse yet, it isn’t even clear there would be any national security benefit associated with such restrictions.  

From Light-Touch to a Long List

Generally speaking, the Trump Administration has adopted a “light-touch” approach to the regulation of emerging technology and relied on more flexible “soft law” approaches to high-tech policy matters. That’s what makes the move to impose restrictions on the trade and usage of these emerging technologies somewhat counter-intuitive. On November 19, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security launched a “Review of Controls for Certain Emerging Technologies.” The notice seeks public comment on “criteria for identifying emerging technologies that are essential to U.S. national security, for example because they have potential conventional weapons, intelligence collection, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorist applications or could provide the United States with a qualitative military or intelligence advantage.” Continue reading →

Last week, science writer Michael Shermer tweeted out this old xkcd comic strip that I had somehow missed before. Shermer noted that it represented, “another reply to pessimists bemoaning modern technologies as soul-crushing and isolating.” Similarly, there’s this meme that has been making the rounds on Twitter and which jokes about how newspapers made us as antisocial in the past much as newer technologies supposedly do today.

‏The sentiments expressed by the comic and that image make it clear how people often tend to romanticize past technologies or fail to remember that many people expressed the same fears about them as critics do today about newer ones. I’ve written dozens of articles about “moral panics” and “techno-panics,” most of which are cataloged here. The common theme of those essays is that, when it comes to fears about innovations, there really is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading →

Last month, it was my great honor to be invited to be a keynote speaker at Lincoln Network’s Reboot 2018 “Innovation Under Threat” conference. Zach Graves interviewed me for 30 minutes about a wide range of topics, including: innovation arbitrage, evasive entrepreneurialism, technopanics, the pacing problem, permissionless innovation, technological civil disobedience, existential risk, soft law and more. They’ve now posted the full event video and you can watch it down below.

In recent months, my colleagues and I at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University have published a flurry of essays about the importance of innovation, entrepreneurialism, and “moonshots,” as well as the future of technological governance more generally. A flood of additional material is coming, but I figured I’d pause for a moment to track our progress so far. Much of this work is leading up to my next on the freedom to innovate, which I am finishing up currently.

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Over at the Mercatus Center Bridge blog, Trace Mitchell and I just posted an essay entitled, “A Non-Partisan Way to Help Workers and Consumers,” which discusses the new Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Economic Liberty Task Force report on occupational licensing.

We applaud the FTC’s calls for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, but regret the missed opportunity to address root problem of excessive licensing more generally. But while FTC is right to push for greater occupational licensing uniformity and portability, policymakers need to confront the sheer absurdity of licensing so many jobs that pose zero risk to public health & safety. Licensing has become completely detached from risk realities and actual public needs.

As the FTC notes, excessive licensing limits employment opportunities, worker mobility, and competition while also “resulting in higher prices, reduced quality, and less convenience for consumers.” These are unambiguous facts that are widely accepted by experts of all stripes. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations, for example, have been completely in league on the need for comprehensive  licensing reforms. Continue reading →

I’ve always been perplexed by tech critiques that seek to pit “humanist” values against technology or technological processes, or that even suggest a bright demarcation exists between these things. Properly understood, “technology” and technological innovation are simply extensions of our humanity and represent efforts to continuously improve the human condition. In that sense, humanism and technology are compliments, not opposites.

I started thinking about this again after reading a recent article by Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal, which introduced me to the term “techno-chauvinism.” Techno-chauvinism is a new term that some social critics are using to identify when technologies or innovators are apparently not behaving in a “humanist” fashion. Mims attributes the term techno-chauvinism to Meredith Broussard of New York University, who defines it as “the idea that technology is always the highest and best solution, and is superior to the people-based solution.” [Italics added.] Later on Twitter, Mims defined and critiqued techno-chauvinism as “the belief that the best solution to any problem is technology, not changing our culture, habits or mindset.”

Everything Old is New Again

There are other terms critics have used to describe the same notion, including: “techno-fundamentalism” (Siva Vaidhyanathan), “cyber-utopianism,” and “technological solutionism” (Evgeny Morozov). In a sense, all these terms are really just variants of what scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have long referred to as “technological determinism.”

As I noted in a recent essay about determinism, the traditional “hard” variant of technological determinism refers to the notion that technology almost has a mind of its own and that it will plow forward without much resistance from society or governments. Critics argue that determinist thinking denies or ignores the importance of the human element in moving history forward, or what Broussard would refer to as “people-based solutions.”

The first problem with this thinking is there are no bright lines in these debates and many “softer” variants of determinism exist. The same problem is at work when we turn to discussions about both “humanism” and “technology.” Things get definitionally murky quite quickly, and everyone seemingly has a preferred conception of these terms to fit their own ideological dispositions. “Humanism is a rather vague and contested term with a convoluted history,” observes tech philosopher Michael Sacasas. And here’s an essay that I have updated many times over the years to catalog the dozens of different definitions of “technology” I have unearthed in my ongoing research. Continue reading →

Over at the Mercatus Center’s Bridge blog, Chad Reese interviewed me about my forthcoming book and continuing research on “evasive entrepreneurialism” and the freedom to innovate. I provide a quick summary of the issues and concepts that I am exploring with my colleagues currently. Those issues include:

  • free innovation
  • evasive entrepreneurialism & social entrepreneurialism
  • technological civil disobedience
  • the freedom to tinker / freedom to try / freedom to innovate
  • the right to earn a living
  • “moonshots” / deep technologies / disruptive innovation / transformative tech
  • innovation culture
  • global innovation arbitrage
  • the pacing problem & the Collingridge dilemma
  • “soft law” solutions for technological governance

You can read the entire Q&A over at The Bridge, or I have pasted it down below.

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We hear a lot today about the importance of “disruptive innovation,” “deep technologies,” “moonshots,” and even “technological miracles.” What do these terms mean and how are they related? Are they just silly clichés used to hype techno-exuberant books, articles, and speeches? Or do these terms have real meaning and importance?

This article explores those questions and argues that, while these terms are confronted with definitional challenges and occasional overuse, they retain real importance to human flourishing, economic growth, and societal progress.

Basic Concepts

Don Boudreaux defines moonshots as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems” and Mike Cushing has referred to them as “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.” “Deep technology” is another buzzword being used to describe such revolutionary and important innovations. Swati Chaturvedi of investment firm Propel[x] says deep technologies are innovations that are “built on tangible scientific discoveries or engineering innovations” and “are trying to solve big issues that really affect the world around them.”

“Disruptive technology” or “game-changing innovations” are other terms that are often used in reference to technologies and inventions with major societal impacts. “Transformative technologies” is another increasingly popular term, albeit one focused mostly on health and wellness-related innovations. Continue reading →