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.


Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its eagerly-awaited “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.” There’s a lot to like about the guidance document, beginning with the agency’s genuine embrace of the potential for highly automated vehicles (HAVs) to revolutionize this sector and save thousands of lives annually in the process.

It is important we get HAV policy right, the DOT notes, because, “35,092 people died on U.S. roadways in 2015 alone” and “94 percent of crashes can be tied to a human choice or error.” (p. 5) HAVs could help us reverse that trend and save thousands of lives and billions in economic costs annually. The agency also documents many other benefits associated with HAVs, such as increasing personal mobility, reducing traffic and pollution, and cutting infrastructure costs.

I will not attempt here to comment on every specific recommendation or guideline suggested in the new DOT guidance document. I could nit-pick about some of the specific recommended guidelines, but I think many of the guidelines are quite reasonable, whether they are related to safety, security, privacy, or state regulatory issues. Other issues need to be addressed and CEI’s Marc Scribner does a nice job documenting some of them is his response to the new guidelines.

Instead of discussing those specific issues today, I want to ask a more fundamental and far-reaching question which I have been writing about in recent papers and essays: Is this guidance or regulation? And what does the use of informal guidance mechanisms like these signal for the future of technological governance more generally? Continue reading →

SecGen BanOn Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon delivered an address to the UN Security Council “on the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” He made many of the same arguments he and his predecessors have articulated before regarding the need for the Security Council “to develop further initiatives to bring about a world free of weapons of mass destruction.” In particular, he was focused on the great harm that could come about from the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. “Vicious non-state actors that target civilians for carnage are actively seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons,” the Secretary-General noted. A stepped-up disarmament agenda is needed, he argued, “to prevent the human, environmental and existential destruction these weapons can cause . . . by eradicating them once and for all.”

The UN has created several multilateral mechanisms to pursue those objectives, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. Progress on these fronts has always been slow and limited, however. The Secretary-General observed that nuclear non-proliferation efforts have recently “descended into fractious deadlock,” but the effectiveness of those and similar UN-led efforts have long been challenged by the dual realities of (1) rapid ongoing technological change that has made WMDs more ubiquitous than ever, plus (2) a general lack of teeth in UN treaties and accords to do much to slow those advances, especially among non-signatories.

Despite those challenges, the Secretary-General is right to remain vigilant about the horrors of chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. But what was interesting about this address is that the Secretary-General continued on to discuss his concerns about a rising class of emerging technologies, which we usually don’t hear mentioned in the same breath as those traditional “weapons of mass destruction”: Continue reading →

Dominos pizza droneJust three days ago I penned another installment in my ongoing series about the growing phenomenon of “global innovation arbitrage” — or the idea that “innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” And now it’s already time for another entry in the series!

My previous column focused on driverless car innovation moving overseas, and earlier installments discussed genetic testingdrones, and the sharing economy. Now another drone-related example has come to my attention, this time from New Zealand. According to the New Zealand Herald:

Aerial pizza delivery may sound futuristic but Domino’s has been given the green light to test New Zealand pizza delivery via drones. The fast food chain has partnered with drone business Flirtey to launch the first commercial drone delivery service in the world, starting later this year.

Importantly, according to the story, “If it is successful the company plans to extend the delivery method to six other markets – Australia, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Japan and Germany.” That’s right, America is not on the list. In other words, a popular American pizza delivery chain is looking overseas to find the freedom to experiment with new delivery methods. And the reason they are doing so is because of the seemingly endless bureaucratic foot-dragging by federal regulators at the FAA. Continue reading →

In previous essays here I have discussed the rise of “global innovation arbitrage” for genetic testing, drones, and the sharing economy. I argued that: “Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” I’ve been working on a longer paper about this with Samuel Hammond, and in doing research on the issue, we keep finding interesting examples of this phenomenon.

The latest example comes from a terrific new essay (“Humans: Unsafe at Any Speed“) about driverless car technology by Wall Street Journal technology columnist L. Gordon Crovitz. He cites some important recent efforts by Ford and Google and he notes that they and other innovators will need to be given more flexible regulatory treatment if we want these life-saving technologies on the road as soon as possible. “The prospect of mass-producing cars without steering wheels or pedals means U.S. regulators will either allow these innovations on American roads or cede to Europe and Asia the testing grounds for self-driving technologies,” Crovitz observes. “By investing in autonomous vehicles, Ford and Google are presuming regulators will have to allow the new technologies, which are developing faster even than optimists imagined when Google started working on self-driving cars in 2009.”  Continue reading →

Juma book cover

“The quickest way to find out who your enemies are is to try doing something new.” Thus begins Innovation and Its Enemies, an ambitious new book by Calestous Juma that will go down as one of the decade’s most important works on innovation policy.

Juma, who is affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has written a book that is rich in history and insights about the social and economic forces and factors that have, again and again, lead various groups and individuals to oppose technological change. Juma’s extensive research documents how “technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order, and stability” (p. 5) and how this tension is “one of today’s biggest policy challenges.” (p. 8)

What Juma does better than any other technology policy scholar to date is that he identifies how these tensions develop out of deep-seated psychological biases that eventually come to affect attitudes about innovations among individuals, groups, corporations, and governments. “Public perceptions about the benefits and risks of new technologies cannot be fully understood without paying attention to intuitive aspects of human psychology,” he correctly observes. (p. 24) Continue reading →

This week, my Mercatus Center colleague Andrea Castillo and I filed comments with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in a proceeding entitled, “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” For more background on this proceeding and the accompanying workshops that OSTP has hosted on this issue, see this White House site.

In our comments, Andrea and I make the case for prudence, patience, and a continuing embrace of “permissionless innovation” as the appropriate policy framework for artificial intelligence (AI) technologies at this nascent stage of their development. Down below, I have pasted our full comments, which were limited to just 2,000 words as required by the OSTP. But we plan on releasing a much longer report on these issues in coming months. You can find the full version of filing that includes footnotes here.

Continue reading →

In a terrific little essay on “Local Economic Revival and The Unpredictability of Technological Innovation,” Michael Mandel, the chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, makes several important points regarding the fundamental folly for future forecasting efforts as it pertains to new innovations. He notes, for example:

There are plenty of candidates for the “next big thing,” ranging from the Internet of Things to additive manufacturing to artificial organ factories to autonomous cars to space commerce to Elon Musk’s hyperloop. Each of these has the potential to revolutionize an industry, and to create many thousands or even millions of jobs in the process–not just for the highly-educated, but a whole range of workers.

Yet the problem–and the beauty–is that technological innovation is fundamentally unpredictable, even at close range. Consider this: The two most important innovations of the past decade, economically, have been the smartphone and fracking. The smartphone transformed the way that we communicate and hydraulic fracturing has driven down the price of energy, not to mention shifting the geopolitical balance of power.

But few saw the smartphone and fracking revolutions coming, he notes. The pundits and the press were too focused on technologies of the past. Continue reading →

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest law review article, “Guns, Limbs, and Toys: What Future for 3D Printing?” The article, which appears in Vol. 17 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, was co-authored with Adam Marcus. Here’s the abstract:

We stand on the cusp of the next great industrial revolution thanks to technological innovations and developments that could significantly enhance the welfare of people across the world. This article will focus on how one of those modern inventions–3D printing–could offer the public significant benefits, but not without some serious economic, social, and legal disruptions along the way. We begin by explaining what 3D printing is and how it works. We also discuss specific applications of this technology and its potential benefits. We then turn to the policy frameworks that could govern 3D printing technologies and itemize a few of the major public policy issues that are either already being discussed, or which could become pertinent in the future. We offer some general guidance for policymakers who might be pondering the governance of 3D printing technologies going forward. Contra to the many other articles and position papers that have already been penned about 3D printing policy, which only selectively defend permissionless innovation in narrow circumstances, we endorse it as the default rule across all categories of 3D printing applications.

More specifically, we do a deep dive into 3 primary public policy “fault lines” for 3D printing: firearms, medical devices, and intellectual property concerns. Read the whole thing for more details.

Elizabeth_WarrenThe folks over at RegBlog are running a series of essays on “Rooting Out Regulatory Capture,” a problem that I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing here and elsewhere in the past. (See, most notably, my compendium on, “Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found.”) The first major contribution in the RegBlog series is from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and it is entitled, “Corporate Capture of the Rulemaking Process.”

Sen. Warren makes many interesting points about the dangers of regulatory capture, but the heart of her argument about how to deal with the problem can basically be summarized as ‘Let’s Build a Better Breed of Bureaucrat and Give Them More Money.’  In her own words, she says we should “limit opportunities for ‘cultural’ capture'” of government officials and also “give agencies the money that they need to do their jobs.”

It may sound good in theory, but I’m always a bit perplexed by that argument because the implicit claims here are that:

(a) the regulatory officials of the past were somehow less noble-minded and more open to corruption than some hypothetical better breed of bureaucrat that is out there waiting to be found and put into office; and

(b) that the regulatory agencies of the past were somehow starved for resources and lacked “the money that they need to do their jobs.”

Neither of these assumptions is true and yet those arguments seem to animate most of the reform proposals set forth by progressive politicians and scholars for how to deal with the problem of capture. Continue reading →

In theory, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) exists to save lives and improve health outcomes. All too often, however, that goal is hindered by the agency’s highly bureaucratic, top-down, command-and-control orientation toward drug and medical device approval.

Today’s case in point involves families of children with diabetes, many of whom are increasingly frustrated with the FDA’s foot-dragging when it comes to approval of medical devices that could help their kids. Writing today in The Wall Street Journal, Kate Linebaugh discusses how “Tech-Savvy Families Use Home-Built Diabetes Device” to help their kids when FDA regulations limit the availability of commercial options. She documents how families of diabetic children are taking matters into their own hands and creating their own home-crafted insulin pumps, which can automatically dose the proper amount of proper amount of the hormone in response to their child’s blood-sugar levels. Families are building, calibrating, and troubleshooting these devices on their own. And the movement is growing. Linebaugh reports that:

More than 50 people have soldered, tinkered and written software to make such devices for themselves or their children. The systems—known in the industry as artificial pancreases or closed loop systems—have been studied for decades, but improvements to sensor technology for real-time glucose monitoring have made them possible.

The Food and Drug Administration has made approving such devices a priority and several companies are working on them. But the yearslong process of commercial development and regulatory approval is longer than many patients want, and some are technologically savvy enough to do it on their own.

Linebaugh notes that this particular home-built medical project (known as OpenAPS), was created by Dana Lewis, a 27-year-old with Type 1 diabetes in Seattle. Linebaugh says that: Continue reading →