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.

[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.]


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 I 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.

Continue reading →

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.”

Continue reading →

The future of emerging technology policy will be influenced increasingly by the interplay of three interrelated trends: “innovation arbitrage,” “technological civil disobedience,” and “spontaneous private deregulation.” Those terms can be briefly defined as follows:

  • Innovation arbitrage” refers to 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. Just as capital now fluidly moves around the globe seeking out more friendly regulatory treatment, the same is increasingly true for innovations. And this will also play out domestically as innovators seek to play state and local governments off each other in search of some sort of competitive advantage.
  • Technological civil disobedience” represents the refusal of innovators (individuals, groups, or even corporations) or consumers to obey technology-specific laws or regulations because they find them offensive, confusing, time-consuming, expensive, or perhaps just annoying and irrelevant. New technological devices and platforms are making it easier than ever for the public to openly defy (or perhaps just ignore) rules that limit their freedom to create or use modern technologies.
  • Spontaneous private deregulation” can be thought of as de facto rather than the de jure elimination of traditional laws and regulations owing to a combination of rapid technological change as well the potential threat of innovation arbitrage and technological civil disobedience. In other words, many laws and regulations aren’t being formally removed from the books, but they are being made largely irrelevant by some combination of those factors. “Benign or otherwise, spontaneous deregulation is happening increasingly rapidly and in ever more industries,” noted Benjamin Edelman and Damien Geradin in a Harvard Business Review article on the phenomenon.[1]

I have previously documented examples of these trends in action for technology sectors as varied as drones, driverless cars, genetic testing, Bitcoin, and the sharing economy. (For example, on the theme of global innovation arbitrage, see all these various essays. And on the growth of technological civil disobedience, see, “DOT’s Driverless Cars Guidance: Will ‘Agency Threats’ Rule the Future?” and “Quick Thoughts on FAA’s Proposed Drone Registration System.” I also discuss some of these issues in the second edition of my Permissionless Innovation book.)

In this essay, I want to briefly highlight how, over the course of just the past month, a single company has offered us a powerful example of how both global innovation arbitrage and technological civil disobedience—or at least the threat thereof—might become a more prevalent feature of discussions about the governance of emerging technologies. And, in the process, that could lead to at least the partial spontaneous deregulation of certain sectors or technologies. Finally, I will discuss how this might affect technological governance more generally and accelerate the movement toward so-called “soft law” governance mechanisms as an alternative to traditional regulatory approaches. Continue reading →

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 →