Technopanics & the Precautionary Principle

I (Eye), Robot?

by on May 8, 2019 · 0 comments

[Originally published on the Mercatus Bridge blog on May 7, 2019.]

I became a little bit more of a cyborg this month with the addition of two new eyes—eye lenses, actually. Before I had even turned 50, the old lenses that Mother Nature gave me were already failing due to cataracts. But after having two operations this past month and getting artificial lenses installed, I am seeing clearly again thanks to the continuing miracles of modern medical technology.

Cataracts can be extraordinarily debilitating. One day you can see the world clearly, the next you wake up struggling to see through a cloudy ocular soup. It is like looking through a piece of cellophane wrap or a continuously unfocused camera.

If you depend on your eyes to make a living as most of us do, then cataracts make it a daily struggle to get even basic things done. I spend most of my time reading and writing each workday. Once the cataracts hit, I had to purchase a half-dozen pair of strong reading glasses and spread them out all over the place: in my office, house, car, gym bag, and so on. Without them, I was helpless.

Reading is especially difficult in dimly lit environments, and even with strong glasses you can forget about reading the fine print on anything. Every pillbox becomes a frightening adventure. I invested in a powerful magnifying glass to make sure I didn’t end up ingesting the wrong things.

For those afflicted with particularly bad cataracts, it becomes extraordinarily risky to drive or operate machinery. More mundane things—watching TV, tossing a ball with your kid, reading a menu at many restaurants, looking at art in a gallery—also become frustrating. Continue reading →

It was my great pleasure to recently join Paul Matzko and Will Duffield on the Building Tomorrow podcast to discuss some of the themes in my last book and my forthcoming one. During our 50-minute conversation, which you can listen to here, we discussed:

  • the “pacing problem” and how it complicates technological governance efforts;
  • the steady rise of “innovation arbitrage” and medical tourism across the globe;
  • the continued growth of “evasive entrepreneurialism” (i.e., efforts to evade traditional laws & regs while innovating);
  • new forms of “technological civil disobedience;”
  • the rapid expansion of “soft law” governance mechanism as a response to these challenges; and,
  • craft beer bootlegging tips!  (Seriously, I move a lot of beer in the underground barter markets).

Bounce over to the Building Tomorrow site and give the show a listen. Fun chat.

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

To read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) is to experience another in a line of progressive pugilists of the technological age. Where Tim Wu took on the future of the Internet and Evgeny Morozov chided online slactivism, O’Neil takes on algorithms, or what she has dubbed weapons of math destruction (WMD).

O’Neil’s book came at just the right moment in 2016. It sounded the alarm about big data just as it was becoming a topic for public discussion. And now, two years later, her worries seem prescient. As she explains in the introduction,

Big Data has plenty of evangelists, but I’m not one of them. This book will focus sharply in the other direction, on the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. We will explore harmful examples that affect people at critical life moments: going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. All of these life domains are increasingly controlled by secret models wielding arbitrary punishments.

O’Neil is explicit about laying out the blame at the feet of the WMDs, “You cannot appeal to a WMD. That’s part of their fearsome power. They do not listen.” Yet, these models aren’t deployed and adopted in a frictionless environment. Instead, they “reflect goals and ideology” as O’Neil readily admits. Where Weapons of Math Destruction falters is that it ascribes too much agency to algorithms in places, and in doing so misses the broader politics behind algorithmic decision making. Continue reading →

By Brent Skorup and Trace Mitchell

An important benefit of 5G cellular technology is more bandwidth and more reliable wireless services. This means carriers can offer more niche services, like smart glasses for the blind and remote assistance for autonomous vehicles. A Vox article last week explored an issue familiar to technology experts: will millions of new 5G transmitters and devices increase cancer risk? It’s an important question but, in short, we’re not losing sleep over it.

5G differs from previous generations of cellular technology in that “densification” is important–putting smaller transmitters throughout neighborhoods. This densification process means that cities must regularly approve operators’ plans to upgrade infrastructure and install devices on public rights-of-way. However, some homeowners and activists are resisting 5G deployment because they fear more transmitters will lead to more radiation and cancer. (Under federal law, the FCC has safety requirements for emitters like cell towers and 5G. Therefore, state and local regulators are not allowed to make permitting decisions based on what they or their constituents believe are the effects of wireless emissions.)

We aren’t public health experts; however, we are technology researchers and decided to explore the telecom data to see if there is a relationship. If radio transmissions increase cancer, we should expect to see a correlation between the number of cellular transmitters and cancer rates. Presumably there is a cumulative effect: the more cellular radiation people are exposed to, the higher the cancer rates.

From what we can tell, there is no link between cellular systems and cancer. Despite a huge increase in the number of transmitters in the US since 2000, the nervous system cancer rate hasn’t budged. In the US the number of wireless transmitters have increased massively–300%–in 15 years. (This is on the conservative side–there are tens of millions of WiFi devices that are also transmitting but are not counted here.) Continue reading →

I recently posted an essay over at The Bridge about “The Pacing Problem and the Future of Technology Regulation.” In it, I explain why the pacing problem—the notion that technological innovation is increasingly outpacing the ability of laws and regulations to keep up—“is becoming the great equalizer in debates over technological governance because it forces governments to rethink their approach to the regulation of many sectors and technologies.”

In this follow-up article, I wanted to expand upon some of the themes developed in that essay and discuss how they relate to two other important concepts: the “Collingridge Dilemma” and technological determinism. In doing so, I will build on material that is included in a forthcoming law review article I have co-authored with Jennifer Skees, Ryan Hagemann (“Soft Law for Hard Problems: The Governance of Emerging Technologies in an Uncertain Future”) as well as a book I am finishing up on the growth of “evasive entrepreneurialism” and “technological civil disobedience.”

Recapping the Nature of the Pacing Problem

First, let us quickly recap that nature of “the pacing problem.” I believe Larry Downes did the best job explaining the “problem” in his 2009 book on The Laws of Disruption. Downes argued that “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally” and that this “law” was becoming “a simple but unavoidable principle of modern life.” Continue reading →

By Andrea O’Sullivan and Adam Thierer (First published at The Bridge on August 1, 2018.)

Technology is changing the ways that entrepreneurs interact with, and increasingly get away from, existing government regulations. The ongoing legal battles surrounding 3D-printed weapons provide yet another timely example.

For years, a consortium of techies called Defense Distributed has sought to secure more protections for gun owners by making the code allowing someone to print their own guns available online. Rather than taking their fight to Capitol Hill and spending billions of dollars lobbying in potentially fruitless pursuits of marginal legislative victories, Defense Distributed ties their fortunes to the mast of technological determinism and blurs the lines between regulated physical reality and the open world of cyberspace.

The federal government moved fast, with gun control advocates like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and former Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) proposing legislation to criminalize Defense Distributed’s activities. They failed.

Plan B in the efforts to quash these acts of 3D-printing disobedience was to classify the Computer-aided design (CAD) files that Defense Distributed posted online as a kind of internationally-controlled munition. The US State Department engaged in a years-long legal brawl over whether or not Defense Distributed violated established International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The group pulled down the files while the issue was examined in court, but the code had long since been uploaded to sharing sites like The Pirate Bay. The files have also been available on the Internet Archive for many years. The CAD, if you will excuse the pun, is out of the bag.

In a surprising move, the Department of Justice suddenly moved to drop the suit and settle with Defense Distributed last month. It agreed to cover the group’s legal fees and cease its attempt to regulate code already easily accessible online. While no legal precedent was set, since this was merely a settlement, it is likely that the government realized that its case would be unwinnable.

Gun control advocates did not react well to this legal retreat. Continue reading →

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has released an amazing new report focused on, “Assessing the Risks of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System.” In what the Wall Street Journal rightly refers to as an “unusually strongly worded report,” the group of experts assembled by the National Academies call for a sea change in regulatory attitudes and policies toward regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (or “drones”) and the nation’s airspace more generally.

The report uses the term “conservative” or “overly conservative” more than a dozen times to describe the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) problematic current approach toward drones. They point out that the agency has “a culture with a near-zero tolerance for risk,” and that the agency needs to adjust that culture to take into account “the various ways in which this new technology may reduce risk and save lives.” (Ch. S, p.2) The report continues on to say that:

The committee concluded that “fear of making a mistake” drives a risk culture at the FAA that is too often overly conservative, particularly with regard to UAS technologies, which do not pose a direct threat to human life in the same way as technologies used in manned aircraft. An overly conservative attitude can take many forms. For example, FAA risk avoidance behavior is often rewarded, even when it is excessively risk averse, and rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. Balanced risk decisions can be discounted, and FAA staff may conclude that allowing new risk could endanger their careers even when that risk is so minimal that it does not exceed established safety standards.  The committee concluded that a better measure for the FAA to apply is to ask the question, “Can we make UAS as safe as other background risks that people experience daily?” As the committee notes, we do not ground airplanes because birds fly in the airspace, although we know birds can and do bring down aircraft.

[. . . ]

In many cases, the focus has been on “What might go wrong?” instead of a holistic risk picture: “What is the net risk/benefit?” Closely related to this is what the committee considers to be paralysis wherein ever more data are often requested to address every element of uncertainty in a new technology. Flight experience cannot be gained to generate these data due to overconservatism that limits approvals of these flights. Ultimately, the status quo is seen as safe. There is too little recognition that new technologies brought into the airspace by UAS could improve the safety of manned aircraft operations, or may mitigate, if not eliminate, some nonaviation risks. (p. S-2)

Importantly, the report makes it clear that the problem here is not just that “an overly conservative risk culture that overestimates the severity and the likelihood of UAS risk can be a significant barrier to introduction and development of these technologies,” but, more profoundly, the report highlights how,  “Avoiding risk entirely by setting the safety target too high creates imbalanced risk decisions and can degrade overall safety and quality of life.” (p. 3-6,7) In other words, we should want a more open and common sense-oriented approach to drones, not only to encourage more life-enriching innovation, but also because it could actually make us safer as a result.

No Reward without Some Risk

What the National Academies report is really saying here is that there can be no reward without some risk.  This is something I have spent a great deal of time writing about in my last book, a recent book chapter, and various other essays and journal articles over the past 25 years.  As I noted in my last book, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about.”  If we want a wealthier, healthier, and safer society, we must embrace change and risk-taking to get us there.

This is exactly what that National Academies report is getting at when they note that the FAA”s “overly conservative culture prevents safety beneficial operations from entering the airspace. The focus is on what might go wrong. More dialogue on potential benefits is needed to develop a holistic risk picture that addresses the question, What is the net risk/benefit?” (p. 3-10)

In other words, all safety regulation involves trade-offs, and if (to paraphrase a classic Hardin cartoon you’ll see to your right) we consider every potential risk except the risk of avoiding all risks, the result will be not only a decline in short-term innovation, but also a corresponding decline in safety and overall living standards over time.

Countless risk scholars have studied this process and come to the same conclusion. “We could virtually end all risk of failure by simply declaring a moratorium on innovation, change, and progress,” notes engineering historian Henry Petroski. But the costs to society of doing so would be catastrophic, of course. “The history of the human race would be dreary indeed if none of our forebears had ever been willing to accept risk in return for potential achievement,” observed H.L. Lewis, an expert on technological risk trade-offs.

The most important book ever written on this topic was Aaron Wildavsky’s 1988 masterpiece, Searching for Safety. Wildavsky warned of the dangers of “trial without error” reasoning and contrasted it with the trial-and-error method of evaluating risk and seeking wise solutions to it. Wildavsky argued that real wisdom is born of experience and that we can learn how to be wealthier and healthier as individuals and a society only by first being willing to embrace uncertainty and even occasional failure. As he put it:

The direct implication of trial without error is obvious: If you can do nothing without knowing first how it will turn out, you cannot do anything at all. An indirect implication of trial without error is that if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards. . . . Existing hazards will continue to cause harm if we fail to reduce them by taking advantage of the opportunity to benefit from repeated trials.

When this logic takes the form of public policy prescriptions, it is referred to as the “precautionary principle,” which generally holds that, because new ideas or technologies could pose some theoretical danger or risk in the future, public policies should control or limit the development of such innovations until their creators can prove that they won’t cause any harms.

Again, if we adopt that attitude, human safety actually suffers because it holds back beneficial experiments aimed at improving the human condition. As the great economic historian Joel Mokyr argues, “technological progress requires above all tolerance toward the unfamiliar and the eccentric.” But the regulatory status quo all too often rejects “the unfamiliar and the eccentric” out of an abundance of caution. While usually well-intentioned, that sort of status quo thinking holds back new and better was of doing old things better, or doing all new things. The end result is that real health and safety advances are ignored or forgone.

How Status Quo Thinking at the FAA Results in Less Safety

This is equally true for air safety and FAA regulation of drones. “Ultimately, the status quo is seen as safe,” the National Acadamies report notes. “There is too little recognition that new technologies brought into the airspace by UAS could improve the safety of manned aircraft operations, or may mitigate, if not eliminate, some nonaviation risks.” The example of the life-saving potential of drones have already been well-documented.

Drones have already been used to monitor fires, help with search-and-rescue missions for missing people or animals, assist life guards by dropping life vests to drowning people, deliver medicines to remote areas, and help with disaster monitoring and recovery efforts. But that really just scratches the surface in terms of their potential.

Some people scoff at the idea of drones being used to deliver small packages to our offices or homes. But consider how many of those packages are delivered by human-operated vehicles that are far more likely to be involved in dangerous traffic accidents on our over-crowded roadways. If drones were used to make some of those deliveries, we might be able to save a lot of lives. Or how about an elderly person stuck at home during storm, only to realize they are out of some essential good or medicine that is a long drive away. Are we better off having them (or someone else) get behind the wheel to drive and get it, or might a drone be able to deliver it more safely?

The authors of the National Academies report understand this, as they made clear when they concluded that, “operation of UAS has many advantages and may improve the quality of life for people around the world. Avoiding risk entirely by setting the safety target too high creates imbalanced risk decisions and can degrade overall safety and quality of life.” (Ch. 3, p. 5-6)

Reform Ideas: Use the “Innovator’s Presumption” & “Sunsetting Imperative”

Given that reality, the National Academies report makes several sensible reform recommendations aimed at countering the FAA’s hyper-conservatism and bias for the broken regulatory status quo. I won’t go through them all, but I think they are an excellent set of reforms that deserve to be taken seriously.

I do, however, want to highly recommend everyone take a close look at this one outstanding recommendation in Chapter 3, which is aimed at keep things moving and making sure that status quo thinking doesn’t freeze beneficial new forms of airspace innovation. Specifically, the National Academies report recommends that:

The FAA should meet requests for certifications or operations approvals with an initial response of “How can we approve this?” Where the FAA employs internal boards of executives throughout the agency to provide input on decisions, final responsibility and authority and accountability for the decision should rest with the executive overseeing such boards. A time limit should be placed on responses from each member of the board, and any “No” vote should be accompanied with a clearly articulated rationale and suggestion for how that “No” vote could be made a “Yes.” (Ch. 3, p. 8)

I absolutely love this reform idea because it essentially combines elements of two general innovation policy reform ideas that I discussed in my recent essay, “Converting Permissionless Innovation into Public Policy: 3 Reforms.” In that piece, I proposed the idea of instituting an “Innovator’s Presumption” that would read: “Any person or party (including a regulatory authority) who opposes a new technology or service shall have the burden to demonstrate that such proposal is inconsistent with the public interest.” I also proposed a so-called “Sunsetting Imperative” that would read: “Any existing or newly imposed technology regulation should include a provision sunsetting the law or regulation within two years.”

The National Academies report recommendation above basically embodies the spirit of both the Innovator’s Presumption and the Sunsetting Imperative. It puts the burden of proof on opponents of change and then creates a sort of shot clock to keep things moving.

These are the kind of reforms we need to make sure status quo thinking at regulatory agencies doesn’t hold back life-enriching and life-saving innovations. It’s time for a change in the ways business is done at the FAA to make sure that regulations are timely, effective, and in line with common sense. Sadly, as the new National Academies report makes clear, today’s illogical policies governing airspace innovation are having counter-productive results that hurt society.

On Monday, April 16th, the Technology Policy Institute hosted an event on “Facebook & Cambridge Analytica: Regulatory & Policy Implications.” I was invited to deliver some remarks on a panel that included Howard Beales of George Washington University, Stuart Ingis of Venable LLP, Josephine Wolff of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Thomas Lenard of TPI, who moderated. I offered some thoughts about the potential trade-offs associated with treating Facebook like a regulated public utility. I wrote an essay here last week on that topic. My remarks at the event begin at the 13:45 mark of the video.


By Adam Thierer and Jennifer Huddleston Skees

There was horrible news from Tempe, Arizona this week as a pedestrian was struck and killed by a driverless car owned by Uber. This is the first fatality of its type and is drawing widespread media attention as a result. According to both police statements and Uber itself, the investigation into the accident is ongoing and Uber is assisting in the investigation. While this certainly is a tragic event, we cannot let it cost us the life-saving potential of autonomous vehicles.

While any fatal traffic accident involving a driverless car is certainly sad, we can’t ignore the fact that each and every day in the United States letting human beings drive on public roads is proving far more dangerous. This single event has led some critics to wonder why we were allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads at all before they have been proven to be 100% safe. Driverless cars can help reverse a public health disaster decades in the making, but only if policymakers allow real-world experimentation to continue.

Let’s be more concrete about this: Each day, Americans take 1.1 billion trips driving 11 billion miles in vehicles that weigh on average between 1.5 and 2 tons. Sadly, about 100 people die  and over 6,000 are injured each day in car accidents. 94% of these accidents have been shown to be attributable to human error and this deadly trend has been increasing as we become more distracted while driving. Moreover, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 6000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2016, which means there was roughly one crash-related pedestrian death every 1.6 hours. In Arizona, the issue is even more pronounced with the state ranked 6th worst for pedestrians and the Phoenix area ranked the 16th worst metro for such accidents nationally. Continue reading →