Is it Time for Tech to Stop Moving Fast and Breaking Things?

The words Silicon Valley broken into pieces
Illustration: iStockphoto/IEEE Spectrum

By: Tekla S. Perry

On Monday, I attended the 2019 Fall Conference of Stanford’s Institute for Human Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). That same night I watched the Season 6 opener for the HBO TV show Silicon Valley. And the debates featured in both surrounded the responsibility of tech companies for the societal effects of the technologies they produce. The two events have jumbled together in my mind, perhaps because I was in a bit of a brain fog, thanks to the nasty combination of a head cold and the smoke that descended on Silicon Valley from the northern California wildfires. But perhaps that mixture turned out to be a good thing.

What is clear, in spite of the smoke, is that this issue is something a lot of people are talking about, inside and outside of Silicon Valley (witness the viral video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg).

So, to add to that conversation, here’s my HBO Silicon Valley/Stanford HAI conference mashup.

Silicon Valley’s fictional CEO Richard Hendriks, in the opening scene of the episode, tells Congress that FacebookGoogle, and Amazon only care about exploiting personal data for profit. He states:

“These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in history.”

Meanwhile Marietje Schaake, former member of the European Parliament and a fellow at HAI, told the conference audience of 900:

“There is a lot of power in the hands of few actors—Facebook decides who is a news source, Microsoft will run the defense department’s cloud…. I believe we need a deeper debate about which tasks need to stay in the hands of the public.”

Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google, agreed. He says: 

“It is important that we debate now the ethics of what we are doing, and the impact of the technology that we are building.”

 Stanford Associate Professor Ge Wang, also speaking at the HAI conference, pointed out:

“‘Doing no harm’ is a vital goal, and it is not easy. But it is different from a proactive goal, to ‘do good.’”

Had Silicon Valley’s Hendricks been there, he would have agreed. He said in the episode:

“Just because it’s successful, doesn’t mean it’s good. Hiroshima was a successful implementation.”

The speakers at the HAI conference discussed the implications of moving fast and breaking things, of putting untested and unregulated technology into the world now that we know that things like public trust and even democracy can be broken.

Google’s Schmidt told the HAI audience:

“I don’t think that everything that is possible should be put into the wild in society, we should answer the question, collectively, how much risk are we willing to take.

And Silicon Valley denizens real and fictional no longer think it’s OK to just say sorry afterwards. Says Schmidt:

“When you ask Facebook about various scandals, how can they still say ‘We are very sorry; we have a lot of learning to do.’ This kind of naiveté stands out of proportion to the power tech companies have. With great power should come great responsibility, or at least modesty.”

Schaake argued:

“We need more guarantees, institutions, and policies than stated good intentions. It’s about more than promises.”

Fictional CEO Hendricks thinks saying sorry is a cop-out as well. In the episode, a developer admits that his app collected user data in spite of Hendricks assuring Congress that his company doesn’t do that:

“You didn’t know at the time,” the developer says. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. But in the future, stop saying it. Or don’t; I don’t care. Maybe it will be like Google saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ or Facebook saying ‘I’m sorry, we’ll do better.’”

Hendricks doesn’t buy it:

“This stops now. I’m the boss, and this is over.”

(Well, he is fictional.)

How can government, the tech world, and the general public address this in a more comprehensive way? Out in the real world, the “what to do” discussion at Stanford HAI surrounded regulation—how much, what kind, and when.

Says the European Parliament’s Schaake:

“An often-heard argument is that government should refrain from regulating tech because [regulation] will stifle innovation. [That argument] implies that innovation is more important than democracy or the rule of law. Our problems don’t stem from over regulation, but under regulation of technologies.”

But when should that regulation happen. Stanford provost emeritus John Etchemendy, speaking from the audience at the HAI conference, said:

“I’ve been an advocate of not trying to regulate before you understand it. Like San Francisco banning of use of facial recognition is not a good example of regulation; there are uses of facial recognition that we should allow. We want regulations that are just right, that prevent the bad things and allow the good things. So we are going to get it wrong either way, if we regulate to soon or hold off, we will get some things wrong.”

Schaake would opt for regulating sooner rather than later. She says that she often hears the argument that it is too early to regulate artificial intelligence—as well as the argument that it is too late to regulate ad-based political advertising, or online privacy. Neither, to her, makes sense. She told the HAI attendees:

“We need more than guarantees than stated good intentions.”

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios would go with later rather than sooner. (And, yes, the country has a CTO. President Barack Obama created the position in 2009; Kratsios is the fourth to hold the office and the first under President Donald Trump. He was confirmed in August.) Also speaking at the HAI conference, Kratsios argued:

“I don’t think we should be running to regulate anything. We are a leader [in technology] not because we had great regulations, but we have taken a free market approach. We have done great in driving innovation in technologies that are born free, like the Internet. Technologies born in captivity, like autonomous vehicles, lag behind.”

In the fictional world of HBO’s Silicon Valley, startup founder Hendricks has a solution—a technical one of course:  the decentralized Internet. He tells Congress:

“The way we win is by creating a new, decentralized Internet, one where the behavior of companies like this will be impossible, forever. Where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data. I will help you build an Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

(This is not a fictional concept, though it is a long way from wide use. Also called the decentralized Web, the concept takes the content on today’s Web and fragments it, and then replicates and scatters those fragments to hosts around the world, increasing privacy and reducing the ability of governments to restrict access.)

If neither regulation nor technology comes to make the world safe from the unforeseen effects of new technologies, there is one more hope, according to Schaake: the millennials and subsequent generations.

Tech companies can no longer pursue growth at all costs, not if they want to keep attracting the talent they need, says Schaake. She noted that, “the young generation looks at the environment, at homeless on the streets,” and they expect their companies to tackle those and other issues and make the world a better place.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 1 November 2019.