Microsoft’s Brad Smith took the unprecedented move last week of calling for government to regulate facial recognition technology. In an industry that has resisted government intervention, it was a bold yet humble step. It was a way of saying “we can’t deal with this on our own.”
There will certainly be people who disagree with Brad Smith. For some the entrepreneurial spirit that is central to tech and startup culture will only be stifled by regulation. But let’s be realistic about where we are at the moment – the technology industry has never faced such a crisis of confidence and met with substantial public cynicism.
Perhaps government regulation is precisely what we need to move forward. Here are 4 reasons why government should regulate technology.
Regulation can restore accountability and rebuild trust in tech
We’ve said it a lot in 2018, but there really is a significant trust deficit in technology at the moment. From Cambridge Analytica scandal to AI bias, software has been making headlines in a way it never has before.
This only cultivates a culture of cynicism across the public. And with talk of automation and job losses, it paints a dark picture of the future. It’s no wonder that TV series like Black Mirror have such a hold over the public imagination.
Of course, when used properly, technology should simply help solve problems – whether that’s better consumer tech or improved diagnoses in healthcare. The problem arises when we find that there our problem-solving innovations have unintended consequences. By regulating, government can begin to think through some of these unintended consequences.
But more importantly, trust can only be rebuilt once there is some degree of accountability within the industry. Think back to Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing earlier this year – while the Facebook chief may have been sweating, the real takeaway was that his power and influence was ultimately untouchable. Whatever mistakes he’s made were just part and parcel of moving fast and breaking things.
An apology and a humble shrug might normally pass, but with regulation, things begin to get serious.
Misusing user data? We’ve got a law for that. Potentially earning money from people who want to undermine western democracy? We’ve got a law for that.
Read next: Is Facebook planning to spy on you through your mobile’s microphones?
Government regulation will make the conversation around the uses and abuses of technology more public
Too much conversation about how and why we build technology is happening in the wrong places. Well, not the wrong places, just not enough places.
The biggest decisions about technology are largely made by some of the biggest companies on the planet. All the dreams about a new democratized and open world are all but gone, as the innovations around which we build our lives come from a handful of organizations that have both financial and cultural clout.
As Brad Smith argues, tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are not the place to be having conversations about the ethical implications of certain technologies. He argues that while it’s important for private companies to take more responsibility, it’s an “inadequate substitute for decision making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic.”
He notes that the commercial dynamics are always going to twist conversations. Companies, after all, are answerable to shareholders – only governments are accountable to the public.
By regulating, the decisions we make (or don’t make) about technology immediately enter into public discourse about the kind of societies we want to live in.
Citizens can be better protected by tech regulation…
At present, technology often advances in spite of, not because of, people. For all the talk of human-centered design, putting the customer first, every company that builds software is interested in one thing: making money.
AI in particular can be dangerous for citizens For example, according to a ProPublica investigation, AI has been used to predict future crimes in the justice system. That’s frightening in itself, of course, but it’s particularly terrifying when you consider that criminality was falsely predicted at twice the times for black people as white people.
Even in the context of social media filters, in which machine learning serves content based on a user’s behavior and profile presents dangers to citizens. It gives rise to fake news and dubious political campaigning, making citizens more vulnerable to extreme – and false – ideas.
By properly regulating this technology we should immediately have more transparency over how these systems work. This transparency would not only lead to more accountability in how they are built, it also ensures that changes can be made when necessary.
Read next: A quick look at E.U.’s pending antitrust case against Google’s Android
…Software engineers need protection too
One group haven’t really been talked about when it comes to government regulation – the people actually building the software.
This a big problem. If we’re talking about the ethics of AI, software engineers building software are left in a vulnerable position. This is because the lines of accountability are blurred. Without a government framework that supports ethical software decision making, engineers are left in limbo.
With more support for software engineers from government, they can be more confident in challenging decisions from their employers.
We need to have a debate about who’s responsible for the ethics of code that’s written into applications today – is it the engineer? The product manager? Or the organization itself? That isn’t going to be easy to answer, but some government regulation or guidance would be a good place to begin.
Regulation can bridge the gap between entrepreneurs, engineers and lawmakers
Times change. Years ago, technology was deployed by lawmakers as a means of control, production or exploration. That’s why the military was involved with many of the innovations of the mid-twentieth century.
Today, the gap couldn’t be bigger. Lawmakers barely understand encryption, let alone how algorithms work. But there is also naivety in the business world too. With a little more political nous and even critical thinking, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg could have predicted the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Maybe Elon Musk would be a little more humble in the face of a coordinated rescue mission.
There’s clearly a problem – on the one hand, some people don’t know what’s already possible. For others, it’s impossible to consider that something that is possible could have unintended consequences.
By regulating technology, everyone will have to get to know one another. Government will need to delve deeper into the field, and entrepreneurs and engineers will need to learn more about how regulation may affect them.
To some extent, this will have to be the first thing we do – develop a shared language. It might also be the hardest thing to do, too.