Technology Policy: Are We Ready to Effectively Regulate?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working on blog series related to technology policy and tech trends in government. The hope is that throughout this series I can identify the challenges, opportunities and current trends that are reshaping technology policy. Send any ideas to [email protected]. Here’s post one.

Sometimes I wonder about the future. How will it look? How we will engage with each other? How will mobility, cloud, natural language processing and emerging robotics innovations all converge to create to new economies? I can’t help but think of the important role government must play to guide us in this new world order, but I also wonder: is government ready?

It feels like every day we are on the brink of a breakthrough on innovations, whether it’s from the sciences, healthcare or in financial world. But although I am optimistic, I’m not blind to the complexity of regulating this emerging world order, and the speed at which it is happening. Too often technology or emerging services conflict with the regulatory environment (Uber, Airbnb, drones, for instance), or in some cases, one simply does not yet exist.

This tension, and a lack of awareness to smart technology policy make me worry, not because I fear the advancements (sign me up for driverless cars), but worry that as a society, we’re just not ready. I am wondering if we have the regulatory structure, the skills and maybe most importantly, the desire to craft smart innovation and technology policy.

I can’t emphasize it enough; there are some large and looming policy issues on the horizon. Some policy questions that we will be faced with in the near future:

  • What happens if self-driving car gets in an accident? Say that a car fails to detect an object in the road, and hits a pedestrian crossing the street. Or a car fails to distinguish between two objects in the road, one a human and one a trash can. To avoid hitting both objects, it swerves right, hitting the pedestrian. Who is liable?
  • What if you want to make drone deliveries? Say you’re a farmer and want to deliver produce to local markets cheaply without traveling. You decide to deploy a drone to make deliveries. Doing so will save you hours of travel time, and provide higher quality produce to stores. Can you build your own drone and make short trips to deliver fresh produce?
  • How can police enforcement use drones for surveillance? You’re a police officer and get a tip that there is a drug ring in an abandoned warehouse, rather than entering, you deploy a drone to do surveillance, climbing up a wall and entering through a window. Is the officer subject to the same policy as the farmer? How do we craft policy that meets both unique demands?

And it’s not like we haven’t been here before with technology policy. Think about the industrial revolution. Advancements in technology led to all sorts of different shifts in society, many for the better. America turned into global leader and we invested in our railroads to help connect people across the country facilitate trade and share resources.

We passed the Morrill Act, which created dozens of land grant colleges; we passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890), and Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), each an important regulation that had long-standing impacts on society. And as you progress throughout America’s timeline, there are countless additional policy examples. But when you look at the history of American policy towards innovation, it’s still a mixed bag.

But today is not the industrial revolution and government does not have the luxury of being reactive to markets. The stakes are just too high. We are potentially looking at ways technology will fundamentally shift and uproot every aspect of our life. And that’s often a scary proposition – making government’s role in regulating and managing technology policy more important than ever before.

These three cases are just a hint at the complexity of the world we are living in. There is no doubt that it will be challenging to think about these issues, and create an environment where we can innovate, protect civil liberties and support business growth. Many technology cases are just starting to enter the courts, and there are some precedents that will be set. But in a lot of cases, technology today is like the Wild West – there is nothing to fall back on. No court case to look up. No Supreme Court ruling. This means that it’s truly an exciting time, and legislators have the opportunity to shape our future economy. Here are a few challenges that we’ll need to overcome to start addressing some of the policy challenges:

  1. Need for increased investment and training in STEM programs
  2. Preserving civil liberties, while supporting innovation
  3. Collaborating effectively with stakeholders
  4. Navigating public / private partnerships and their role in innovation
  5. Discussing who should be actually be creating policy (states, federal, local, or a blended model)

There’s a great quote by John Lennon that is fitting to our discussion: “There’s no such thing as problems, only solutions.” There are significant policy decisions that must be made in the near term, and the solutions exist, but maybe we shouldn’t frame them as problems. We just need to really focus on getting the right people together, and crafting policy that will actually drive innovation.

 Stay tuned for the next few blogs as we talk about Natural Language Processing, and the some insights on STEM training. 


Photo Credit: FlickR Creative Commons, kev-shine


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