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.


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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[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →

I’ve written here before about the problems associated with the “technopanic mentality,” especially when it comes to how technopanics sometimes come to shape public policy decisions and restict important new, life-enriching innovations. As I argued in a recent book, the problem with this sort Chicken Little thinking is that, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning, it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”

Perhaps the worst thing about worst-case thinking is how short-sighted and hubristic it can be. The technopanic crowd often has an air of snooty-ness about them in that they ask us to largely ignore the generally positive long-run trends associated with technological innovation and instead focus on hypothetical fears about an uncertain future that apparently only they can foresee. This is the case whether they are predicting the destruction of jobs, economy, lifestyles, or culture. Techno-dystopia lies just around the corner, they say, but the rest of us ignorant sheep who just can’t see it coming!

In his wonderful 2013 book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the BetterClive Thompson correctly noted that “dystopian predictions are easy to generate” and “doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today’s technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you’re a gimlet-eyed critic who isn’t hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciation for the past and who stands above the triviality of today’s life.”

Stated differently, the doomsayers are guilty of a type of social and technical arrogance. They are almost always wrong on history, wrong on culture, and wrong on facts. Again and again, humans have proven remarkably resilient in the face of technological change and have overcome short-term adversity. Yet, the technopanic pundits are almost never called out for their elitist attitudes later when their prognostications are proven wildly off-base. And even more concerning is the fact that their Chicken Little antics lead them and others to ignore the more serious risks that could exist out there and which are worthy of our attention.

Here’s a nice example of that last point that comes from a silent film made all the way back in 1911! Continue reading →

[Remarks prepared for Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy & Ethics at Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, May 18, 2017.]

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What are we to make of this peculiar new term “permissionless innovation,” which has gained increasing currency in modern technology policy discussions? And how much relevance has this notion had—or should it have—on those conversations about the governance of emerging technologies? That’s what I’d like to discuss here today.

Uncertain Origins, Unclear Definitions

I should begin by noting that while I have written a book with the term in the title, I take no credit for coining the phrase “permissionless innovation,” nor have not been able to determine who the first person was to use the term. The phrase is sometimes attributed to Grace M. Hopper, a computer scientist who was a rear admiral in the United States Navy. She once famously noted that, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

“Hopper’s Law,” as it has come to be known in engineering circles, is probably the most concise articulation of the general notion of “permissionless innovation” that I’ve ever heard, but Hopper does not appear to have ever used the actual phrase anywhere. Moreover, Hopper was not necessarily applying this notion to the realm of technological governance, but was seemingly speaking more generically about the benefit of trying new things without asking for the blessing of any number of unnamed authorities or overseers—which could include businesses, bosses, teachers, or perhaps even government officials. Continue reading →

[originally posted on Medium]

Today is the anniversary of the day the machines took over.

Exactly twenty years ago today, on May 11, 1997, the great chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov became the first chess world champion to lose a match to a supercomputer. His battle with IBM’s “Deep Blue” was a highly-publicized media spectacle, and when he lost Game 6 of his match against the machine, it shocked the world.

At the time, Kasparov was bitter about the loss and even expressed suspicions about how Deep Blue’s team of human programmers and chess consultants might have tipped the match in favor of machine over man. Although he still wonders about how things went down behind the scenes during the match, Kasparov is no longer as sore as he once was about losing to Deep Blue. Instead, Kasparov has built on his experience that fateful week in 1997 and learned how he and others can benefit from it.

The result of this evolution in his thinking is Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, a book which serves as a paean to human resiliency and our collective ability as a species to adapt in the face of technological disruption, no matter how turbulent.

Kasparov’s book serves as the perfect antidote to the prevailing gloom-and-doom narrative in modern writing about artificial intelligence (AI) and smart machines. His message is one of hope and rational optimism about future in which we won’t be racing against the machines but rather running alongside them and benefiting in the process.

Overcoming the Technopanic Mentality

There is certainly no shortage of books and articles being written today about AI, robotics, and intelligent machines. The tone of most of these tracts is extraordinarily pessimistic. Each page is usually dripping with dystopian dread and decrying a future in which humanity is essentially doomed.

As I noted in a recent essay about “The Growing AI Technopanic,” after reading through most of these books and articles, one is left to believe that in the future: “Either nefarious-minded robots enslave us or kill us, or AI systems treacherously trick us, or at a minimum turn our brains to mush.” These pessimistic perspectives are clearly on display within the realm of fiction, where every sci-fi book, movie, or TV show depicts humanity as certain losers in the proverbial “race” against machines. But such lugubrious lamentations are equally prevalent within the pages of many non-fiction books, academic papers, editorials, and journalistic articles.

Given the predominantly panicky narrative surrounding the age of smart machines, Kasparov’s Deep Thinking serves as a welcome breath of fresh air. The aim of his book is finding ways of “doing a smarter job of humans and machines working together” to improve well-being. Continue reading →

By Jordan Reimschisel & Adam Thierer

[Originally published on Medium on May 2, 2017.]

Americans have schizophrenic opinions about artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Ask the average American what they think of AI and they will often respond with a combination of fear, loathing, and dread. Yet, the very same AI applications they claim to be so anxious about are already benefiting their lives in profound ways.

Last week, we posted complementary essays about the growing “technopanic” over artificial intelligence and the potential for that panic to undermine many important life-enriching medical innovations or healthcare-related applications. We were inspired to write those essays after reading the results of a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult, which suggested that the public was very uncomfortable with AI technologies. “A large majority of both Republicans and Democrats believe there should be national and international regulations on artificial intelligence,” the poll found, Of the 2,200 American adults surveyed, the poll revealed that “73 percent of Democrats said there should be U.S. regulations on artificial intelligence, as did 74 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independents.”

We noted that there were reasons to question the significance of those in light of the binary way in which the questions were asked. Nonetheless, there are clearly some serious concerns among the public about AI and robotics. You see that when you read deeper into the poll results for specific questions and find respondents saying that they are “somewhat” to “very uncomfortable” about a wide range of specific AI applications.

Yet, in each case, Americans are already deriving significant benefits from each of the AI applications they claim to be so uncomfortable with.

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Written with Christopher Koopman and Brent Skorup (originally published on Medium on 4/10/17)

Innovation isn’t just about the latest gee-whiz gizmos and gadgets. That’s all nice, but something far more profound is at stake: Innovation is the single most important determinant of long-term human well-being. There exists widespread consensus among historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars that technological innovation is the linchpin of expanded economic growth, opportunity, choice, mobility, and human flourishing more generally. It is the ongoing search for new and better ways of doing things that drives human learning and prosperity in every sense — economic, social, and cultural.

As the Industrial Revolution revealed, leaps in economic and human growth cannot be planned. They arise from societies that reward risk takers and legal systems that accommodate change. Our ability to achieve progress is directly proportional to our willingness to embrace and benefit from technological innovation, and it is a direct result of getting public policies right.

The United States is uniquely positioned to lead the world into the next era of global technological advancement and wealth creation. That’s why we and our colleagues at the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University devote so much time and energy to defending the importance of innovation and countering threats to it. Unfortunately, those threats continue to multiply as fast as new technologies emerge. Continue reading →

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Apple iPhone. With all the headlines being written today about how the device changed the world forever, it is easy to forget that before its launch, plenty of experts scoffed at the idea that Steve Jobs and Apple had any chance of successfully breaking into the seemingly mature mobile phone market.

After all, those were the days when BlackBerry, Palm, Motorola, and Microsoft were on everyone’s minds. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so surprising to hear predictions like these leading up to and following the launch of the iPhone:

  • In December 2006, Palm CEO Ed Colligan summarily dismissed the idea that a traditional personal computing company could compete in the smartphone business. “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”
  • In January 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laughed off the prospect of an expensive smartphone without a keyboard having a chance in the marketplace as follows: “Five hundred dollars? Fully subsidized? With a plan? I said that’s the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good e-mail machine.”
  • In March 2007, computing industry pundit John C. Dvorak argued that “Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone” since “There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive.” Dvorak believed the mobile handset business was already locked up by the era’s major players. “This is not an emerging business. In fact it’s gone so far that it’s in the process of consolidation with probably two players dominating everything, Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc.”

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