The Woes of Regulators

by Darryl Skinner, Age 17
Submitting Teacher: Leslie Leyser

Upon trying to visualize a computer renaissance, our minds are often quick to conjure spectacles of science fiction much like those from the movies we’ve seen. For us, films like I, Robot; WarGames; and The Terminator stimulate the imagination not only with visions of fantasy, but also those of a grim reality we could find ourselves in if too much ambition were to backfire. Thus, it’s no surprise that many are hasty in calling for regulations that would prevent robots from contending for our jobs or waging war against us. This attitude, however, fails to account for the ways technological progressions have shaped our world to this point and instead assumes, acquiring notions from dramatic portrayals made for our entertainment.

As the silicon chip sees an expanded scope in society’s infrastructure, so does the prevalent scare about humans being replaced by machines. But the automation of unskilled labor is nothing new. 200 years ago, as John Stossel points out in his TV special, “Tech Revolution”,  some 90% of Americans were farmers. During the industrial revolution, state-of-the-art inventions like the reaper and the thresher worked in conjunction with steam engines to forever mitigate contemporary hardships. Abandoning Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic, the country saw a substantial increase in specialized blacksmiths, physicians, and carpenters. This cycle continued; just as Holt’s tractor made farmhands into anvil workers, Ford’s assembly line molded woodworkers into mechanics. If this evolution of occupations endures, more automation will not decimate middle class workers but instead compound career opportunities. When one ponders over this logic, armed with the understanding that devices are designed to redefine human activities rather than replace us entirely (consider an accountant and their calculator), it becomes disheartening that certain nearsighted journalists and politicians advocate misguided clamps on innovation.

Today, well adjusted to the marvels of the 20th century, these armchair economists become forgetful of the fact that they relish an almost doubled life expectancy, safer methods of manufacturing, and streamlined telecommunications. When these revolutionary enterprises were taken on, there was an absence of the public skepticism that developing technologies receive today; evidently, they thrived. America has remained at the forefront in advanced fields of science and engineering because of the freedoms once enjoyed by inventors. Domestic production technologies once built equipment that helped us link the Atlantic and the Pacific via the Panama Canal. Guidance computers created by American scientists for the Apollo missions put a man on the moon. Our communications protocols set guidelines for how data would be sent and received online.

Alarmingly, countries who have taken notice to America’s success pose the threat of surpassing us in tech-related departments; concerns about the United States’ declining leadership role have been present since the mid-1980s. The underfunded aerospace sector, featuring a grounded shuttle program, is especially liable.  More rules would be nails in the coffin.

But what we’re facing has further reaching consequences than most cynics foresee. Restrictions could do more than halt research; if they throttle the stream of services that utilize smartphones and the web, the entire market could be plunged into a tech recession. Consider Uber, the multibillion-dollar company that’s stirring controversy for revolutionizing fare-based transportation services with a smartphone app. Traditional cab drivers don’t appreciate the competition, especially when it offers passengers reduced costs, a rating system, and an overall more pleasurable experience. Unfortunately, the opposition has driven the company out of some areas altogether. While retaining this pocket chauffeur may not seem imperative, consider the company’s dilemma from an investor’s point of view. Venture capitalists will avoid funding lucrative tech startups if crackdowns can be expected whenever they begin to prosper. The resulting scarcity of capital could cripple infant design teams and send shockwaves rippling throughout the economy. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, warns against a future where government policies inhibit innovation, believing that the resulting downturn in the tech industry would generate more consumer demands to “redistribute the pie that’s no longer growing.”

While Uber is denounced for employing the age-old principle of laissez-faire capitalism, the true adversary of cab drivers has been overlooked: the rooted cab companies that charge their own drivers, on average, a third of their collected revenue. The employers also tack on abysmal processing fees each time a driver receives a credit card payment. Uber, on the other hand, charges its operators 20 to 30 percent of a trip’s earnings, eliminating redundant fees by allowing patrons to pay via their app.

To be fair, some innovations warrant concern, but naysayers overlook the true origins of technology’s obstacles, blaming ideas themselves rather than the extraneous factors that get them labeled “frightening”. Problems sometimes stem from neglect in the development process, especially in considering all product vulnerabilities. For example, one research team successfully hacked an implantable defibrillator, disabling the device; this exposed a failure to properly test health products before their distribution. Within the taxi industry, the hidden antagonist was the cab companies. Similarly, debate regarding the use of impassive killing machines in warfare shouldn’t center on capping innovation but should instead question the extent to which officials are willing to utilize it.

Another impediment to fruitful discussion lies in our inability to predict technology’s consequences. While some would’ve expected a throng of schoolteacher layoffs after a school district adopted Khan Academy’s video math lessons, teachers stationed in the classrooms found that they were able to cover more material and spend more time tailoring to their students’ individual needs.

Ultimately, issues are often complicated by an instinctive tendency to target innovation itself rather than the broader elements pertaining to it. When deliberating over intervention, we must question whether the technology itself or an unforeseen factor is at fault. More red tape blockades won’t bridge the ever-widening gap between the inevitable future and the conventional past. If mankind decides that a certain innovation oversteps the boundaries of cultural normalcy, our rejections will drive it out of the market, invoking yet another premium of life in a free market economy regulated by consumers, not scare tactics.