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Talk regulation to me. Rise of the AI masochists

Posted by Alex Warren on 26th February 2020

For years, the world’s tech giants have pushed back against regulation, spending a fortune to keep ‘Big Government’ out of Silicon Valley. 

Last year alone, Google spent more than $21m on lobbying the US government, while Amazon and Facebook increased their own lobbying spends to record highs. 

While the caricature of big tech founders as staunch libertarians is exaggerated, their views on regulation have been consistently clear. In fact, while only 24% of tech founders identify as libertarians, 80% are against regulation within the tech industry.

Traditionally, the arguments of these individuals have been twofold. First, that government regulation stifles innovation and holds back good ideas. And, second, that the advancement of technology is simply inevitable — you may as well try and hold back progress itself. In summary, regulation is either bad for society, or just plain pointless.

At least, that was the argument.

In the last twelve months, Silicon Valley has had an uncharacteristic change of heart. Now the world’s biggest tech brands are climbing over themselves to be regulated. 

Nowhere is this more true than in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Like a gesture of self-flagellation, the founders of IBM, Microsoft and Google recently took to the stage at Davos to call for greater regulation of AI. This move was also repeated by Elon Musk and even Mark Zuckerberg (hardly the poster child for open democracy), who called for a “more active role for governments and regulators” in AI. 

So if regulation is so bad for tech, why the sudden penchant for masochism? Is the idea of unchecked AI so terrifying that even Silicon Valley CEOs are crying out to be regulated? Or, have they finally realised the vital role that governments can play in helping to shape their future products? 

Sadly, both seem unlikely. As is so often the case, there may be a little more to this change of heart than meets the eye.

To my mind, there are two possible explanations for Silicon Valley’s sudden support of regulation. The first is the cynical explanation. While the second… is the more cynical explanation. 

The first explanation is just good old-fashioned public relations. Following ten years of bad publicity surrounding tax avoidance, data harvesting and consumer privacy infringements, the Big Five have finally come to realise that being publicly anti-regulation is bad for business. 

Likewise, quoting Ayn Rand and pushing aggressively free market rhetoric no longer gets you a standing ovation at Davos. If anything, it gets you a wave of public outcry and a front row seat at the next US Judiciary hearing.

From a cynic’s perspective, bigging up the government’s role (and the people’s role) in the future of big tech is little more than lip service; it’s about spinning the right story while continuing to spend tens of millions of dollars on fighting regulation behind the scenes.

Now for the even more cynical, and possibly more likely, explanation.

The thing about regulation is that it’s expensive. Starting up in AI is hard enough as it is, without adding the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars needed to manage and meet regulatory criteria.

The sad truth is that the biggest players in tech know this fact. They know that, if the right regulation is introduced, it will seal off the AI industry for years to come — cementing their place as the only viable players in the market.

Ironically, regulation designed to protect and improve the AI market may be the very thing that ensures a continued oligarchy. 

As Harvard professor Karim R. Lakhani put it at a recent Nesta AI event, “We should be suspicious when Google, Facebook and Amazon say ‘we need more regulation’. Why? Because they’re the only ones who can afford to pay the regulatory costs. That’s why the next Spotify will never come out of Sweden. The market is being shut down and the monopolies are being locked in.”

I’m aware a lot of this may make me sound anti-regulation, but I’m not. The age-old arguments about regulation stifling technology innovation simply don’t stand up. Look at the world’s most regulated industries: aerospace, telecoms or pharmaceuticals. Are you honestly telling me that there’s no innovation in these fields? 

Well-written rules and regulations can provide a level playing field upon which innovation is built, especially in tech. 

In an industry as complex and ethically challenging as artificial intelligence, good regulation is needed more than ever. What that regulation looks like, however, must be decided in the public domain.

It shouldn’t be up to the Facebooks and Googles of the world to be regulated on their own terms. Regulation should be about supporting the big players, but also protecting the little guys, whether consumers, AI start-ups or new challenger brands. 

It’s a difficult balance to strike, but anything less can only do more damage than good.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.