Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Economist Mariana Mazzucato has a full spread in the Wired UK humbling suggesting that she “has a plan to fix capitalism.” The plan is an outgrowth of her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State, which contends that government involvement in research and development (R&D), loans, and other business subsidies are the true drivers of innovation, not the private sector. Her plan is simple: governments need to do better on funding innovation.  

It goes without saying that the government is massively involved in innovation and for good reason. Open any introductory economics text and you’re likely to see an argument for why. Private actors are short sighted and often fail to plan for the long term by investing in R&D that will lead to technological progress. Basic research also might lead to advances or products outside of the company’s niche. Knowing that they won’t be able to capture all of the gains from research, private entities will choose a lower level of investment than is optimal, leading to a market failure. Governments solve this market failure by allocating resources to expanding scientific and technological knowledge.    

While Mazzucato might be finding an audience with policy makers in the UK and doers in Silicon Valley, innovation economists are a little more wary of her state first theory of innovation. Here are some things worth considering when reading her work: Continue reading →

by Adam Thierer and Trace Mitchell

This essay originally appeared on The Washington Examiner on September 12, 2019.

You won’t find President Trump agreeing with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on many issues, but the need for occupational licensing reform is one major exception. They, along with many other politicians and academics both Left and Right, have identified how state and local “licenses to work” restrict workers’ opportunities and mobility while driving up prices for consumers.

Of course, not everybody has to agree with high-profile Democrats and Republicans, but let’s at least welcome the chance to discuss something important without defaulting to our partisan bunkers.

This past week, for example, ThinkProgress published an article titled “Koch Brothers’ anti-government group promotes allowing unlicensed, untrained cosmetologists.” Centered around an Americans for Prosperity video highlighting the ways in which occupational licensing reform could lower some of the barriers that prevent people from bettering their lives, the article painted a picture of an ideologically driven, right-wing movement.

In reality, it’s anything but that. Continue reading →

Originally published on the AIER blog on 9/8/19 as “The Worst Regulation Ever Proposed.”

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Imagine a competition to design the most onerous and destructive economic regulation ever conceived. A mandate that would make all other mandates blush with embarrassment for not being burdensome or costly enough. What would that Worst Regulation Ever look like?

Unfortunately, Bill de Blasio has just floated a few proposals that could take first and second place prize in that hypothetical contest. In a new Wired essay, the New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate explains, “Why American Workers Need to Be Protected From Automation,” and aims to accomplish that through a new agency with vast enforcement powers, and a new tax.

Taken together, these ideas represent one of the most radical regulatory plans any America politician has yet concocted.

Politicians, academics, and many others have been panicking over automation at least since the days when the Luddites were smashing machines in protest over growing factory mechanization. With the growth of more sophisticated forms of robotics, artificial intelligence, and workplace automation today, there has been a resurgence of these fears and a renewed push for sweeping regulations to throw a wrench in the gears of progress. Mayor de Blasio is looking to outflank his fellow Democratic candidates for president with an anti-automation plan that may be the most extreme proposal of its kind. Continue reading →

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Technology Liberation Front. This blog has evolved through the years and served as a home for more than 50 writers who have shared their thoughts about the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.

Many TLF contributors have moved on to start other blogs or write for other publications. Others have gone into other professions where they simply can’t blog anymore. Still others now just publish their daily musings on Twitter, which has had a massive substitution effect on long-form blogging more generally. In any event, I’m pleased that so many of them had a home here at some point over the past 15 years.

What has unified everyone who has written for the TLF is (1) a strong belief in technological innovation as a method of improving the human condition and (2) a corresponding concern about impediments to technological change. Our contributors might best be labeled “rational optimists,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s phrase, or “dynamists,” to use Virginia Postrel’s term. In a recent essay, I sketched out the core tenets of a dynamist, rational optimist worldview, arguing that we:

  • believe there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment, but also acknowledge the various challenges sometimes associated with technological change;
  • look forward to a better future and reject overly nostalgic accounts of some supposed “good ‘ol days” or bygone better eras;
  • base our optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling;
  • support practical, bottom-up solutions to hard problems through ongoing trial-and-error experimentation, but are not wedded to any one process to get the job done;
  • appreciate entrepreneurs for their willingness to take risks and try new things, but do not engage in hero worship of any particular individual, organization, or particular technology.

Applying that vision, the contributors here through the years have unabashedly defended a pro-growth, pro-progress, pro-freedom vision, but they have also rejected techno-utopianism or gadget-worship of any sort. Rational optimists are anti-utopians, in fact, because they understand that hard problems can only be solved through ongoing trial and error, not wishful thinking or top-down central planning.

Continue reading →

This essay was originally published on the AIER blog on August 8, 2019.

In a new Atlantic essay, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen suggest that, “We Need a New Science of Progress,” which, “would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” Collison and Cowen refer to this project as Progress Studies.

Is such a field of study possible, and would it really be a “science”? I think the answer is yes, but with some caveats. Even if it proves to be an inexact science, however, the effort is worth undertaking. 

Thinking about Progress

Progress Studies is a topic I have spent much of my life thinking and writing about, most recently in my book, Permissionless Innovation as well as a new paper on “Technological Innovation and Economic Growth,” co-authored with James Broughel. My work has argued that nations that are open to risk-taking, trial-and-error experimentation, and technological dynamism (i.e., “permissionless innovation”) are more likely to enjoy sustained economic growth and prosperity than those rooted in precautionary principle thinking and policies (i.e., prior restraints on innovative activities). A forthcoming book of mine on the future of entrepreneurialism and innovation will delve even deeper into these topics and address criticisms of technological advancement.

Continue reading →

When it comes to the threat of automation, I agree with Ryan Khurana: “From self-driving car crashes to failed workplace algorithms, many AI tools fail to perform simple tasks humans excel at, let alone far surpass us in every way.” Like myself, he is skeptical that automation will unravel the labor market, pointing out that “[The] conflation of what AI ‘may one day do’ with the much more mundane ‘what software can do today’ creates a powerful narrative around automation that accepts no refutation.”

Khurana marshals a number of examples to make this point:

Google needs to use human callers to impersonate its Duplex system on up to a quarter of calls, and Uber needs crowd-sourced labor to ensure its automated identification system remains fast, but admitting this makes them look less automated…

London-based investment firm MMC Ventures found that out of the 2,830 startups they identified as being “AI-focused” in Europe, 40% used no machine learning tools, whatsoever.

I’ve been collecting examples of the AI hype machine as well. Here are some of my favorites. Continue reading →

Over at the American Institute for Economic Research blog, I recently posted two new essays discussing increasing threats to innovation and discussing how to counter them. The first is on “The Radicalization of Modern Tech Criticism,” and the second discusses, “How To Defend a Culture of Innovation During the Technopanic.”

“Technology critics have always been with us, and they have sometimes helped temper society’s occasional irrational exuberance about certain innovations,” I note in the opening of the first essay. The problem is that the “technology critics sometimes go much too far and overlook the importance of finding new and better ways of satisfying both basic and complex human needs and wants.” I continue on to highlight the growing “technopanic” rhetoric we sometimes hear today, including various claims that “it’s OK to be a Luddite” and push for a “degrowth movement” that would slow the wheels of progress. That would be a disaster for humanity because, as I note in concluding that first essay:

Through ongoing trial-and-error tool building, we discover new and better ways of satisfying human needs and wants to better our lives and the lives of those around us. Human flourishing is dependent upon our collective willingness to embrace and defend the creativity, risk-taking, and experimentation that produces the wisdom and growth that propel us forward. By contrast, today’s neo-Luddite tech critics suggest that we should just be content with the tools of the past and slow down the pace of technological innovation to supposedly save us from any number of dystopian futures they predict. If they succeed, it will leave us in a true dystopia that will foreclose the entrepreneurialism and innovation opportunities that are paramount to raising the standard of living for billions of people across the world.

In the second essay, I make an attempt to sketch out a more robust vision and set of principles to counter the tech critics. Continue reading →

Image result for joseph schumpeterIn my first essay for the American Institute for Economic Research, I discuss what lessons the great prophet of innovation Joseph Schumpeter might have for us in the midst of today’s “techlash” and rising tide of techopanics.  I argue that, “[i]f Schumpeter were alive today, he’d have two important lessons to teach us about the techlash and why we should be wary of misguided interventions into the Digital Economy.” Specifically:
We can summarize Schumpeter’s first lesson in two words: Change happens. But disruptive change only happens in the right policy environment. Which gets to the second great lesson that Schumpeter can still teach us today, and which can also be summarized in two words: Incentives matter. Entrepreneurs will continuously drive dynamic, disruptive change, but only if public policy allows it.
Schumpeter’s now-famous model of “creative destruction” explained why economies are never in a state static equilibrium and that entrepreneurial competition comes from many (usually completely unpredictable) sources. “This kind of competition is much more effective than the other,” he argued, because the “ever-present threat” of dynamic, disruptive change, “disciplines before it attacks.”
But if we want innovators to take big risks and challenge existing incumbents and their market power, then it is essential that we get policy incentives right or else this sort of creative destruction will never come about. The problem with too much of today’s “techlash” thinking is that it imagines the current players are here to stay and that their market power is unassailable. Again, that is static “snapshot” thinking that ignores the reality that new generations of entrepreneurs are in a sort of race for a prize and will make big bets on the future in the face of seemingly astronomical odds against their success. But we have to give them a chance to win that “prize” if we want to see that dynamic, disruptive change happen.
As always, we have much to learn from Schumpeter. Jump over to the AIER website to read the entire essay.

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.

Continue reading →

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 →