As Regulators Focus on AI, How Should the Tech Sector Respond?

Last week, news emerged that U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington has circulated draft legislation to create a board that would provide advice to the federal government on a broad range of issues related to artificial intelligence (AI). This is the first legislative foray on the topic of AI and its aim is to initiate some form of government oversight of AI technologies, including analysis of their potential impact on the work force.

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According to the draft version of the bill, the advisory committee would consider issues such as whether “networked, automated, artificial intelligence applications and robotic devices will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025,” and how bias can “be eliminated in the development of artificial intelligence and in the algorithms that support them.”

While the legislation is still in the draft stages and may never even come to pass, its very creation suggests that at least some politicians are concerned about the growth of AI, and the potential ramifications and backlash from voters.

So, what reaction, if any, should the technology sector have to this legislative development?

The limitless possibility of innovation is the north star of practically every technology company. Accordingly, many tech organizations are likely to be hesitant to embrace regulations that they perceive as stifling innovation. However, AI is a true game changer and will doubtless become an increasingly politicized issue in the US, particularly as it feeds into already festering concerns around income inequality, job stability and privacy.

Let’s just be clear for a moment. AI will have an impact on jobs. It is inevitable. Some jobs will be rendered redundant, while others will be created. But there are legitimate questions to be answered. Will AI’s job creation potential be enough to offset the jobs lost? And will jobs in certain sectors be disproportionately impacted (e.g., truck drivers)?

As noted in a recent discussion of Cantwell's draft legislation, the U.S. currently has no policy on the potential threat of robotization to jobs, or even a legal definition of AI at the federal level. (Some state laws, on the other hand, do define AI.)

Rather than ignoring legitimate concerns or allowing them to be co-opted and distorted for political gain, the technology industry should embrace the role of regulation. Technology leaders can play a proactive and pivotal role in partnering with the government to create a solid definition of AI – and they can start looking for meaningful ways to ensure its benefits are far-reaching, while helping to anticipate and mitigate the fallout related to potential job losses.

The past few years have provided ample evidence that battling or ignoring regulators ultimately proves to be a short-sighted approach. Recent advances in technology have created huge disruptions in industries from transport to hospitality. The emergence of sharing economy darlings like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, for instance, has created enormous opportunity, but has also had a significant (and largely negative) impact on the sustainability of traditional business models, has undermined long-held conceptions of what it means to be an employee and has even had a knock-on effect on the availability of affordable housing.  

Anticipated or not, these “side effects” put these new companies on a collision course with regulators who were initially caught off guard by the exponential growth in the sharing economy and struggled to respond accordingly. After several bruising battles, all three companies have changed course and have found it advantageous to work in partnership with the government to respond to concerns and create regulations that remain conducive to growth, but also address some of the less-than-positive impacts of their businesses.

Almost every major company in the technology space is investing heavily in AI: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla…you name it. What that tells us is that if we think AI is impacting our lives today, then we should brace for the transformation ahead, as it is likely to be huge.

In my view, the technology industry needs to step outside its echo chamber and drive thought-leadership focused on how we can collectively respond today to avoid a potential public relations disaster tomorrow. There is an opportunity now to work with government while we are still in the relatively early days of AI development in a way that is productive and mindful of the issues that matter most to the average person – job security, income inequality and personal privacy. I am hoping the industry learns from the mistakes of the recent past and seizes this opportunity.