The U.S. has so far been relatively permissive toward AI technologies—and we
should keep it that way. It’s the reason so
much innovation happens here rather than
in the more prohibitory European nations.
The main reason the government
hasn’t hampered the industry with regulation is that there’s no overbearing
federal agency dedicated strictly to AI.
Instead, we have a patchwork of federal
and state authorities scrutinizing these
technologies. The Federal Trade Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example,
recently hosted a workshop to determine
how to oversee automated-car technologies. The Department of Homeland Security has put out reports on potential AI
threats to critical infrastructure.
The patchwork approach is imperfect,
but it has one big benefit—it constrains
the temptation to regulate excessively.
Regulators can only apply policies that
relate to their specialized knowledge.
But now a growing chorus of academ-
ics and commentators want to kill that
approach. They’re calling for a whole new
regulatory body to control AI technolo-
gies. Law professor Frank Pasquale of
the University of Maryland has called for
a “Federal Search Commission” similar
to the FCC to oversee Internet queries.
Attorney Matthew Scherer, in Portland,
Oregon, advocates a specialized federal
AI agency. Law professor Ryan Calo of
the University of Washington imagines a
“Federal Robotics Commission.”
Such ideas are based on the “pre-
cautionary principle”—the idea that an
innovation must be decelerated or halted
altogether if a regulator determines that
the associated risks are too much for
society to bear.
Of course, as regulatory scholars
have long pointed out, the risk analyses
that regulators employ can be inadequate. Imagined or exaggerated risks are
weighted far more heavily than real benefits, and society is robbed of life-enriching
(and in many cases life-saving) developments. Regulators often can’t resist the
urge to extend their own authority or budgets, regardless of the benefits or costs
to society. If you give authority to regulate,
they will regulate. And once you create a
federal agency, it’s incredibly di;cult to
make it go away.
As AI grows to touch more and more
domains of existence, a new federal AI
agency could have a worryingly large command over American life. Policymakers
would need the patience and humility to
discern one AI application from another.
The social risks from AI assistants, for
example, are di;erent from those posed
by predictive policing software and “smart
weapons.” But an overly zealous regulatory
regime might erroneously lump such applications together, stifling beneficial technologies while dedicating fewer resources to
the big problems that really matter.
The threat to our future and well-being that precautionary regulation poses,
meanwhile, is considerable. AI technologies are poised to generate life-saving
developments in health and transportation while modernizing manufacturing and
trade. The projected economic benefits
reach the trillions. And on a personal level,
AI promises to make our lives more comfortable and simpler.
Policymakers who wish to champion
growth should embrace a stance of “
per-missionless innovation.” Humility, collaboration, and voluntary solutions should
trump the outdated “command and control” model of the last century. The age
of smart machines needs a new age of
Andrea O’Sullivan is a program manager
with the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented think tank at George Mason University’s Technology Policy Program.
Tech policy scholar Andrea O’Sullivan says the U.S.
needs to be careful not to hamstring innovation.
Don’t Let Regulators
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