Technology, Business & Cool Toys

James Pethokousis of AEI interviews me about the current miserable state of modern science fiction, which is just dripping with dystopian dread in every movie, show, and book plot. How does all the techno-apocalyptica affect societal and political attitudes about innovation broadly and emerging technologies in particular. Our discussion builds on my recent a recent Discourse article, “How Science Fiction Dystopianism Shapes the Debate over AI & Robotics.” [Pasted down below.] Swing on over to Jim’s “Faster, Please” newsletter and hear what Jim and I have to say. And, for a bonus question, Jim asked me is we doing a good job of inspiring kids to have a sense of wonder and to take risks. I have some serious concerns that we are falling short on that front.

Continue reading →

Profectus is an excellent new online magazine featuring essays and interviews on the intersection of academic literature, public policy, civilizational progress, and human flourishing. The Spring 2022 edition of the magazine features a “Progress Roundtable” in which six different scholars were asked to contribute their thoughts on three general questions:
  1. What is progress?
  2. What are the most significant barriers holding back further progress?
  3. If those challenges can be overcome, what does the world look like in 50 years?

I was honored to be asked by Clay Routledge to contribute answers to those questions alongside others, including: Steven Pinker (Harvard University), Jason Crawford (Roots of Progress), Matt Clancy (Institute for Progress), Marian Tupy (Human​Progress​.org), James Pethokoukis (AEI). I encourage you to jump over the roundtable and read all their excellent responses. I’ve included my answers down below:

Continue reading →

On Thursday, June 9, it was my great pleasure to return to my first work office at the Adam Smith Institute in London and give a talk on the future of innovation policy and the governance of artificial intelligence. James Lawson, who is affiliated with the ASI and wrote a wonderful 2020 study on AI policy, introduced me and also offered some remarks. Among the issues discussed:

  • What sort of governance vision should govern the future of innovation generally and AI in particular: the “precautionary principle” or “permissionless innovation”?
  • Which AI sectors are witnessing the most exciting forms of innovation currently?
  • What are the fundamental policy fault lines in the AI policy debates today?
  • Will fears about disruption and automation lead to a new Luddite movement?
  • How can “soft law” and decentralized governance mechanism help us solve pressing policy concerns surrounding AI?
  • How did automation affect traditional jobs and sectors?
  • Will the European Union’s AI Act become a global model for regulation and will it have a “Brussels Effect” in terms of forcing innovators across the world to come into compliance with EU regulatory mandates?
  • How will global innovation arbitrage affect the efforts by governments in Europe and elsewhere to regulate AI innovation?
  • Can the common law help address AI risk? How is the UK common law system superior to the US legal system?
  • What do we mean by “existential risk” as it pertains to artificial intelligence?

I have a massive study in the works addressing all these issues. In the meantime, you can watch the video of my London talk here. And thanks again to my friends at the Adam Smith Institute for hosting!

Continue reading →

Almost every argument against technological innovation and progress that we hear today was identified and debunked by Samuel C. Florman a half century ago. Few others since him have mounted a more powerful case for the importance of innovation to human flourishing than Florman did throughout his lifetime.

Chances are you’ve never heard of him, however. As prolific as he was, Florman did not command as much attention as the endless parade of tech critics whose apocalyptic predictions grabbed all the headlines. An engineer by training, Florman became concerned about the growing criticism of his profession throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pushed back against that impulse in a series of books over the next two decades, including most notably: The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976), Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (1981), and The Civilized Engineer (1987). He was also a prolific essayist, penning hundreds of articles for a wide variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers beginning in 1959. He was also a regular columnist for MIT Technology Review for sixteen years.

Florman’s primary mission in his books and many of those essays was to defend the engineering profession against attacks emanating from various corners. More broadly, as he noted in a short autobiography on his personal website, Florman was interested in discussing, “the relationship of technology to the general culture.”

Florman could be considered a “rational optimist,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s notable term[1] for those of us who believe, as I have summarized elsewhere, that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment.[2] Rational optimists are highly pragmatic and base their optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on dogmatism or blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling. But they are unified in the belief that technological change is a crucial component of moving the needle on progress and prosperity.

Florman’s unique contribution to advancing rational optimism came in the way he itemized the various claims made by tech critics and then powerfully debunked each one of them. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center has just released a new special study that I co-authored with Connor Haaland entitled, “Does the United States Need a More Targeted Industrial Policy for High Tech?” With industrial policy reemerging as a major issue — and with Congress still debating a $250 billion, 2,400-page industrial policy bill — our report does a deep dive into the history various industrial policy efforts both here and abroad over the past half century. Our 64-page survey of the historical record leads us to conclude that, “targeted industrial policy programs cannot magically bring about innovation or economic growth, and government efforts to plan economies from the top down have never had an encouraging track record.”

We zero in on the distinction between general versus targeted economic development efforts and argue that:

whether we are referring to federal, state, or local planning efforts—the more highly tar­geted development efforts typically involve many tradeoffs that are often not taken into consider­ation by industrial policy advocates. Downsides include government steering of public resources into unproductive endeavors, as well as more serious problems, such as cronyism and even corruption.

We also stress the need to more tightly define the term “industrial policy” to ensure rational evaluation is even possible. We argue that, “industrial policy has intentionality and directionality, which distinguishes it from science policy, innovation policy, and economic policy more generally.” We like the focus definition used by economist Nathaniel Lane, who defines industrial policy as “intentional political action meant to shift the industrial structure of an economy.”

Our report examines the so-called “Japan model” of industrial policy that was all the rage in intellectual circles a generation ago and then compares it to the Chinese and European industrial policy efforts of today, which many pundits claim that the US needs to mimic. Continue reading →

Discourse magazine recently published my essay on what “Industrial Policy Advocates Should Learn from Don Lavoie.” With industrial policy enjoying a major revival in the the U.S. — with several major federal proposals are pending or already set to go into effect — I argue that Lavoie’s work is worth revisiting, especially as this weekend was the 20th anniversary of his untimely passing. Jump over to Discourse to read the entire thing.

But one thing I wanted to just briefly highlight here is the useful tool Lavoie created that helped us think about the “planning spectrum,” or the range of different industrial policy planning motivations and proposals. On one axis, he plotted “futurist” versus “preservationist” advocates and proposals, with the futurists wanting to invest in new skills and technologies, while the preservationists seek to prop up existing sectors. On the other axis, he contrasted “left-wing or pro-labor” and “right-wing or pro-business” advocates and proposals.

Lavoie used this tool to help highlight the remarkable intellectual schizophrenia among industrial policy planners, who all claimed to have the One Big Plan to save the economy. The problem was, Lavoie noted, all their plans differed greatly. For example, he did a deep dive into the work of Robert Reich and Felix Rohatyn, who were both outspoken industrial policy advocates during the 80s. Reich as affiliated with the Harvard School of Government at that time, and Rohatyn was a well-known Wall Street financier. The industrial policy proposals set forth by Reich and Rohatyn received enormous media and academic attention at the time, yet no one except Lavoie seriously explored the many ways in which their proposals differed so fundamentally. Rohatyn was slotted on the lower right quadrant because of his desire to prop up old sectors and ensure the health of various private businesses. Reich fell into the upper quadrant of being more of futurist in his desire to have the government promote newer skills, sectors, and technologies. Continue reading →

What explains the rebirth of analog era media? Many people (including me!) predicted that vinyl records, turntables, broadcast TV antennas and even printed books seemed destined for the dustbin of technological history. We were so wrong, as I note in this new oped that has gone out through the Tribune Wire Service.

“Many of us threw away our record collections and antennas and began migrating from physical books to digital ones,” I note. “Now, these older technologies are enjoying a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what’s the lesson?”

I offer some data about the rebirth of analog era media as well as some possible explanations for their resurgence. “With vinyl records and printed books, people enjoy making a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it off to their friends. Digital music or books don’t satisfy that desire, no matter how much more convenient and affordable they might be. The mediums still matter.”

Read more here. Meanwhile, my own personal vinyl collection continues to grow without constraint! …

“The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks.” So says a new feature essay in The Economist. Indeed it should, and that includes existential risks associated with emerging technologies.

The primary focus of my research these days revolves around broad-based governance trends for emerging technologies. In particular, I have spent the last few years attempting to better understand how and why “soft law” techniques have been tapped to fill governance gaps. As I noted in this recent post compiling my recent writing on the topic;

soft law refers to informal, collaborative, and constantly evolving governance mechanisms that differ from hard law in that they lack the same degree of enforceability. Soft law builds upon and operates in the shadow of hard law. But soft law lacks the same degree of formality that hard law possess. Despite many shortcomings and criticisms, compared with hard law, soft law can be more rapidly and flexibly adapted to suit new circumstances and address complex technological governance challenges. This is why many regulatory agencies are tapping soft law methods to address shortcomings in the traditional hard law governance systems.

I argued in recent law review articles as well as my latest book, despite its imperfections, I believe that soft law has an important role to play in filling governance gaps that hard law struggles to address. But there are some instances where soft law simply will not cut it. Continue reading →

Does anyone remember Blockbuster and Hollywood Video? I assume most of you do, but wow, doesn’t it seem like forever ago when we actually had to drive to stores to get movies to watch at home? What a drag that was!

Yet, just 15 years ago, that was the norm and those two firms were the titans of video distribution, so much so that federal regulators at the Federal Trade Commission looked to stop their hegemony through antitrust intervention. But then those firms and whatever “market power” they possessed quickly evaporated as a wave of Schumpeterian creative destruction swept through video distribution markets. Both those firms and antitrust regulators had completely failed to anticipate the tsunami of technological and marketplace changes about to hit in the form of alternative online video distribution platforms as well as the rise of smartphones and robust nationwide mobile networks.

Today, this serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when regulatory hubris triumphs over policy humility, as Trace Mitchell and I explain in this new essay for National Review Online entitled, “The Crystal Ball of Antitrust Regulators Is Cracked.” As we note:

There is no discernable end point to the process of entrepreneurial-driven change. In fact, it seems to be proliferating rapidly. To survive, even the most successful companies must be willing to quickly dispense with yesterday’s successful business plans, lest they be steamrolled by the relentless pace of technological change and ever-shifting consumer demands. It is easy to understand why some people find it hard to imagine a time when Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google won’t be quite as dominant as they are today. But it was equally challenging 20 years ago to imagine that those same companies could disrupt the giants of that era.

Hopefully today’s policymakers will have a little more patience and trust competition and continued technological innovation to bring us still more wonderful video choices.

[OC] Blockbuster Video US store locations between 1986 and 2019 from r/dataisbeautiful

DIY medicineMargaret Talbot has written an excellent New Yorker essay entitled, “The Rogue Experimenters,” which documents the growth of the D.I.Y.-bio movement. This refers to the organic, bottom-up, citizen science movement, or “leaderless do-ocracy” of tinkerers, as she notes. I highly recommend you check it out.

As I noted in my new book on Evasive Entrepreneurs and the Future of Governance, “DIY health services and medical devices are on the rise thanks to the combined power of open-source software, 3D printers, cloud computing, and digital platforms that allow information sharing between individuals with specific health needs. Average citizens are using these new technologies to modify their bodies and abilities, often beyond the confines of the law.”

Talbot discusses many of the same examples I discuss in my book, including:

  • the Four Thieves Vinegar collective, which devised instructions for building its own version of the EpiPen;
  • e-nable, an international collective of thirty thousand volunteers, designs and 3-D-prints prosthetic hands and arms (and which has, more recently, distributed more than fifty thousand face shields in more than twenty-five countries.);
  • GenSpace and other community biohacking labs; and
  • Open Insulin and Open Artificial Pancreas System.

I like the way Talbot compares these movements to the hacker and start-up culture of the Digital Revolution: Continue reading →