Who Will Regulate Technology?

Why the whole tech industry needs to start thinking differently about what it creates.


Outside regulation and technological innovation don’t mix well, particularly when it comes to modern electronics, but the potential for that kind of oversight is rising.

In the past, most of the problems involving regulation stemmed from a lack of understanding about technology and science. This is hardly a new phenomenon. It literally dates back centuries. Galileo was forced to recant heliocentrism in the early 17th century because the Catholic Church deemed it was heresy. In the early 19th century, a group of English textile workers known as the Luddites attacked weaving looms, which were eliminating jobs.

It’s easy to say things have changed since then and that people today are better educated about technology and science. There certainly are more people who can talk intelligently about what technology can accomplish than in the past, but a much smaller percentage understand how it really works. Extrapolate that out a few more degrees from the center and there is still an increasing wariness of how technology can be misused, which is why stickers are available to cover cameras on laptops and computer monitors.

Fig. 1: Camera stickers available on Amazon.com.

In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut described an invention called Ice Nine, which changed the freezing point of water to 114.4 degrees F. The idea was that it would help soldiers in muddy terrain, but it got out of control when kids started playing with it. There is growing concern that artificial intelligence will be the new Ice Nine, and that’s before quantum computing becomes accurate enough to blast through even the most advanced security measures.

The tech industry needs to get out in front of this the same way the automotive industry has done with safety and autonomous vehicles, anticipating the consequences of new developments and the impact on people’s safety. Automotive standards for autonomous vehicles and safety are predominantly industry standards, which is very different from the aerospace industry where those rules are set by government agencies such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It may not be a completely fair comparison, but there are a lot more cars on the road than there are airplanes in the air, and there is a lot more innovation happening in cars than in airplanes.

Regardless, what’s at stake here is the tech industry’s ability to set its own agenda and to avoid problems that attract outside regulation, which in the case of complex systems and new technologies will not be anywhere near as informed as if those regulations are developed from within. It’s hard enough for engineers to understand what’s happening inside a chip, let alone explain it to a board of regulators appointed by elected officials. It’s hard enough to explain to different groups within the industry. There is a sharp contrast between how hardware and software engineers view problems, and how analog and digital engineers view problems and solutions.

So what exactly needs to be addressed? Top on the list is security. As more devices are connected, they need to adhere to some standard level of security for interoperability with other systems. This should be a checklist item, almost like UL certification or an EnergyStar rating for devices, and it needs be managed from within the tech industry. If something doesn’t adhere to known best practices for security, that should be evident to the consumer.

Second, international standards need be developed for privacy and ethics involving AI and quantum computing. What is acceptable behavior for machines? There are enough well-known executives and politicians fanning fear around new technologies and the dangers of a world where machines make their own decisions. Concerns about social media are just the beginning.

Third, there needs to be an infrastructure established to assess new developments and make recommendations as needed. The number of new markets for chips is exploding. It’s no longer just about chips for computers or mobile phones. It’s about ubiquitous technology that is connected to other technology. For innovation to continue rolling out will require a foundation for using this technology responsibly and safely. And it’s much, much better if that guidance comes from within the industry than from the outside.

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