Although regulation is not a topic anyone wants to talk about, there comes a point at which it becomes necessary. This is true of all industries, but especially true of the tech industry, which, despite its size, is still maturing. Consider, for example, that there are more than 2.1 billion people on Facebook; more than 2 billion people using Google’s Android operating system — in addition to more than 1 billion using Maps, YouTube, Chrome, Gmail, Search, and Play, individually; and more than 310 million people with Amazon Prime accounts.
Compare these numbers to historical empires, and you’ll see there is no comparison. The Roman Empire had a population of 50 to 70 million individuals, the Mongol Empire ruled more than 110 million, and the British Empire controlled around 530 million. In terms of religions, the Catholic Church claims nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide, Hinduism just under 1.1 billion, and Judaism just under 17 million. And unlike these empires, which took hundreds or thousands of years to form, Big Tech has reached this size in less than 30 years, giving a select few great power in record time.
Without some form of restraint, the powers of modern data empires will undoubtedly come to outweigh the power of any nation-state.
In this short time period, these companies have reinvented the way the world operates. In doing so, they have amassed riches beyond comprehension. While they deserve to make fortunes for the work they’ve done to develop the infrastructure necessary to operate as a global society, their power should not remain unchecked. The world now relies on these technologies, and because of this, the population has effectively been corralled into a state of gamified obedience training. Like a dog with a shock collar, where limitations are not visible to the eye but learned over time through pain and fear, many citizens have begun to give up any hope of trying to push beyond their invisibly defined limitations. There is no reason this should be happening. This is not leadership, it is an abuse of power. So, while it is important that we recognize the incredible value these companies have brought to the world, it’s time we make change — it’s time we regulate. And if we think about how this might happen, there are really only three ways this plays out — one of which is far superior to the other two.
1. No regulation is put in place, and companies continue functioning as they have been.
If regulation remains light and flexible, as it currently is, this means we’ve decided to leave the decisions to publicly traded corporations that have access to more information than any entity in the history of the world, besides perhaps the CIA, the FBI, or other government intelligence agencies. This will undoubtedly lead to an unmonitored arms race focused on creating the most intelligent, most powerful artificially intelligent systems, in pursuit of corporate profit. This is something Elon Musk, a world leader in artificial intelligence, who has financial incentives to lead the way, has commented on several times, despite the fact that regulation could harm his companies’ financial potential. In an interview at the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium, Musk spoke about the need for regulatory oversight, stating: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence, we’re summoning the demon.”
What many people reading this probably don’t remember, because we were not alive, is that the nuclear arms race that took place during the Cold War era put both the United States and Soviet Union in a position that the military referred to as mutually assured destruction (MAD) — a point at which if either side were to continue onward would result in a disastrous situation for all parties involved. Eventually discussions resulted in safeguards that ensured military restraint, but the same has yet to be seen with the tech industry. Without some form of restraint, the powers of modern data empires will undoubtedly come to outweigh the power of any nation-state, country, or previous empire, if they don’t already. This, like the nuclear arms race, will become unsafe for everyone involved, both the general public and the people creating these systems.
2. Regulation is determined by those who don’t fully understand what’s going on.
As seen in recent elections, people in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and many other developed nations, are uncomfortable with what is happening, but remain incapable of creating meaningful change because they lack an understanding of what’s going on. This isn’t to say that any of these people are dumb; they simply live lifestyles in which they have no immediate need to understand artificial intelligence. Yet despite this, decisions being made in Silicon Valley and tech communities around the world are disrupting their lives. And in an attempt to restore the order they once knew, these individuals are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their status quo. Unfortunately, this is bound to lead to regulation that stifles innovation and puts us all in harm’s way, from both an economic and military perspective.
From an economic perspective, we have to remember that these systems are fluid and elusive, allowing companies to operate anywhere that has a good Wi-Fi connection. Because of this, overregulation tends to drive innovators to places where regulation is not as strict. Without these innovators, countries are destined to fall behind economically.
But while falling behind economically would be bad, there should be even greater concern from a military perspective. Falling behind in the artificial intelligence race will quickly leave nations so far behind they’ll be unable to secure themselves in times of threat. This would only make the threats from those who wish to use the technology to own the world even greater. Vladimir Putin’s chillingly hinted at this, in 2017: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
It is about helping the population understand the situation well enough that they can feel safe about their future, and the future of their children.
Recognizing this, we must maintain the belief that trying to shut down these systems out of fear is not a reasonable option. Instead, we have to embrace this future and move forward with courage by working to create a governing strategy that ensures the safety of everyone involved. We need powerful nations to align, set standards for the world, and support each other from the threat of any nation that would rather wield these technologies for power and destruction. Modern regulation should focus on creating fluid, adaptable systems that promote public safety and reinforce corporate responsibility while still allowing companies to flourish economically. Harsh punishments may make constituents happy momentarily, but visceral emotional reactions focused on satisfying immediate needs without fully comprehending the long-term effects are not what we need right now. Instead, we need to focus on the long-term well-being of our world.
3. We accept that regulation is necessary, get involved in our communities, and discuss the options.
The difference between previous revolutionary technologies and those being discussed today is that previous revolutionary technologies were often built and controlled by the government, while today’s are being built and controlled for commercial purposes. Proof that the technical prowess of Silicon Valley has come to outweigh that of the government, can be seen in the work being done to help advance government defense initiative. While this may concern some, it is undeniable that we need these companies, which possess some of the top talent in the world, to help. This is something companies are aware of, and are beginning to embrace, as noted by Sergey Brin in Alphabet’s 2017 Founder’s Letter, released in early 2018: “Technology companies have historically been wide-eyed and idealistic about the opportunities that their innovations create. And for the overwhelming part, the arc of history shows that these advances, including the Internet and mobile devices, have created opportunities and dramatically improved the quality of life for billions of people. However, there are very legitimate and pertinent issues being raised, across the globe, about the implications and impacts of these advances. This is an important discussion to have. While I am optimistic about the potential to bring technology to bear on the greatest problems in the world, we are on a path that we must tread with deep responsibility, care, and humility.”
It should be recognized that at the end of the day there are humans inside these companies. These are people who have families to take care of, lives to build, and a desire to make the world a better place. Most of these people are not evil, and in fact, most of them joined because of the potential to positively impact the world. That being said, even with the best intentions, mistakes can happen. That’s part of being human. The difference between the mistakes these people make and the mistakes the average person makes is that those from Silicon Valley are magnified due to the size of their impact — and rightfully so. However, there also are things that make these mistakes difficult to avoid at times — things that aren’t easy to understand from the outside.
For example, working with budgets that are larger than the wealth of many nations combined may sound awesome, but is not as glamorous as it sounds. Conversations about making changes are not so different than diplomats discussing national or international budget changes. Toss in some strict deadlines and a dose of global impact, and what you have is bunch of people who are asked to make the impossible possible, and to have it done by tomorrow morning, without any mistakes. Combine this with many other factors that can only be experienced by being on the inside, including not being able to talk to anyone about what you do, and what results is an overwhelmingly stressful work environment. I don’t say these things to make excuses or to cast doubt on the capabilities of the talent within these organization, but to recognize that at the end of the day, these are humans, and they deserve empathy as well.
So, as opposed to how option three sounds, it isn’t about giving away intellectual property or helping the general public overthrow anyone. It is about helping the population understand the situation well enough that they can not only empathize with those involved but also feel safe about their future, and the future of their children. It’s about figuring out a way we can work together to discover a solution. And, more than anything, it is about regaining the public’s trust. There is hard work to be done if we want to balance the matters of national security with personal security and consumer safety, but this will this only happen by being transparent and helping the public understand what’s going on.
Regardless of whether these corporations want to initiate these conversations or not, every individual on this planet deserves to understand how to remain safe and prosper in the future we are collectively creating. These tools can’t be forced on the world without allowing people to understand how they will impact their lives. Helping the general public understand these systems, trust the people behind them, and bridge the gap that is sure to come from an increased use of artificial intelligence should be considered a matter of basic human decency, not a last line of defense to put out PR fires. It’s time to bring these issues to light so we can have a larger discussion about what’s happening and collectively figure out a way to make it work for everyone, not just a select few.