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Policy, Governance, Legislation: Whose Role is it Any Way?

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

New entities and mandates for the research and development of emerging technologies are springing up globally on a regular basis. In addition, new bodies for researching and developing the necessary policies and regulations for these technologies too are launched regularly worldwide. It seems every organization, government, academic institution, association, law firm, thinktank and more, has some degree of attentiveness to these topics. While this is certainly a positive trend, there is a glaring issue. While every entity and its uncle is paying attention to these incredibly salient problem areas, it’s being done in a tribalistic fashion, rather than in the unified and systematic way it needs to be done to allow for global sustainability.

Overview of the Role Different Categories are Playing

Many of you are probably now accustomed to reading the headlines about the global race to be the leader in AI, a grueling race that the world’s largest countries are determined to win. Typing “who will win the global AI race?” into Google, comes up with no shortage of perspectives with a handful of leading countries frequently mentioned. Governments are grappling with the realities of the impact “winning AI” will have. Countries that lead will reap the benefits of security, economic growth, social improvement, and more; or to put it as candidly as Vladimir Putin has, “whoever becomes the leader of this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” With statements like Putin’s, the race is evidently not unwarranted. Countries have a duty to protect and serve their citizens, and as such this race at a government level is probably inevitable.

Leaders outside of government in academic and think tank organizations are taking a different approach. They are calling for global frameworks and collaboration. There are heavily controversial areas of emerging technologies that would greatly benefit from the relatively non-political contributions of these organizations to policy and regulation. For example, the CRISPR twins purportedly born last year have been a source of global outrage. These developments have lead geneticists from seven countries to call for an international governance framework before any further heritable gene editing is done. While the twins “creation” was a violation of a Chinese health ministry guideline, and the science ministry banned the continuation of work by the scientist involved, it does not amount to a legal violation. This could be an indication that these organizations have the knowledge and expertise to drive meaningful recommendations, but may lack the abilities to translate this into enforceable legislation.

Universities though are certainly rich hubs of research and development around these topics. They are cultivating the minds to manage these areas, and have robust resources to progress meaningful research. Just last month (February 28th) it was announced that a $55 million grant would create the largest AI and policy centre in the United States, based out of Georgetown University. Though it’s important to note that often these mandates are involved at a government level, for example the Georgetown centre states on their release, “it will deliver nonpartisan analysis and advice to the U.S....”.

Naturally, law firms and related associations also play a role in guiding policy and legislative transformation for emerging technologies. Bar associations have an interesting angle to play actually, as they are guiding parties to the business and practice of law in their respective jurisdictions. Bar associations do not have the same competitive and commercial interest that firms might have in advising legislative transformation. For example, the International Bar Association (IBA) has a technology law committee that consists of its members from different firms worldwide, and it is tasked with building global insights around these topics built from a diversity of legal perspectives.

Consortia and similar organizations can operate in a uniquely global frame of reference as they are not jurisdictionally confined. As such they can take in and build recommendations from a geographically and interest diverse group of members. For example, the Partnership on AI, is led by leading AI researchers from across the globe and is now in 13 countries with 80+ partner organizations.

However, these organizations are often led by a collective of groups with distinct interests of their own. The Partnership on AI, for example, is led by Big Tech firms that are currently under quite a bit of legal heat for a whole host of legal violations related to data breaches. Facebook in particular is under investigation for its “data deals” with over 150 leading technology companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, all of which are founding members of the Partnership on AI.

Are we being blinded by Tribalism?

There seems to be a common thread here, an emphasis on tribalism. In origin, human beings are social creatures and need to have a feeling of belongingness. Tribalism however is a specific form of social groupings in which the group is loyal to the “tribe” above all else, meaning that right and wrong could play less of a role in decision making and actions. Because of this tight affinity, it's easy for these groups to cultivate hostility and aggression toward other tribes. This hostility is often caused by an actual or perceived zero-sum system, in which the gain and loss of utility of one participating tribe is directly balanced against the gains and losses of the other participating tribes.

There seems to be a perception globally that we are operating in a zero-sum system in which “ruling emerging tech” is the gain and that it can only come at the cost of the other participants loss. The way in which government and various types of organizations are approaching research and development of regulation highlights this case quite clearly. The thing is, this is a fabricated scarcity. In actuality, the benefits technological advancement can bring are limitless and really could enable global systems that benefit us all, if they’re regulated correctly that is, and with the benefit of all in mind.

Who are we kidding….no one really knows anything

The real scarcity, is in knowledge. There’s no real way of understanding what the rapid evolution of technology is going to bring. Point blank. Our future, and what technological evolution will bring is a vast mystery to us all, and we don’t have nearly enough knowledge of these technologies to uncover this grand mystery. In fact, there’s material to suggest that we’re in a global AI skills crisis, and perhaps this very point is the root of our tendencies toward tribalism. Governments, universities, institutions of all kinds are setting up competitive programs to attract the world’s best AI talent. After all, without the knowledge the skills can’t be trained, and without the skills the knowledge can’t be gained.

Everyone has a role to play

It’s a wonder then that this shared mystery is not igniting in us a unity, a global collaboration in understanding, rather than tribalism. While we have seen above that there are those calling for international collaborative frameworks, there seems to be an overwhelming tendency toward a nationalistic approach to something that, I would argue, demands in its essence for multinational collaboration. Evolution is about progression. The evolution of technology should be about our progression toward means of unifying toward common progress. Instead, we are now tangled in this incredibly dangerous race to see who can develop the technology quicker. This approach neglects the matched expedience of the legal and governance systems necessary to manage these developments, and the result could be devastating.

Everyone is a stakeholder in this race. Each group involved offers their own expertise and resources. Yes, there are definitely experts, and they need to be at the head of the table in their domains, and shaping the dialogue. Though this should not be at the neglect of understanding and ensuring the benefit these technologies can bring to all of us. There is opportunity now like never before to build systems that enable structured input from all stakeholders, in such a way that the various expertise and resources available to these different stakeholders come together in a cohesive and universally beneficial output.


About the Author: Aileen Schultz is a Toronto based award winning growth and innovation strategist with a global footprint, and a passion for creating better exponential systems. She works with SME's across several sectors with a focus in legal and emerging technologies.

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