Mid-Term Exam

The Q & A below is from the Los Angeles Review of Books blog of July 3, 2020. There are several disturbing problems contained therein, some obvious, others not so much. How many can you identify?

The topic under discussion is artificial intelligence (AI) and the need for “wide-ranging policy visions, regulatory actions, legal liability, corporate self-policing, and informed public engagement.” Asking the question is Andy Fitch, responding is Darrell M. West. “West is Vice President and Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Previously, West was a professor of Political Science and Public Policy (and Director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy) at Brown University. His current research focuses on American politics, technology policy, and artificial intelligence.”

Q: To close then, could you make the historical case for why we lost the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment precisely when legislators needed it most? And could you flesh out your ideal for an updated “dedicated body that undertakes research, assesses policy and regulatory alternatives, and helps lawmakers come to grips with AI, robotics, facial recognition, and virtual reality, among other developments”?

A: After the 1994 election, with Republicans recapturing control of the House for the first time in almost 50 years, Newt Gingrich became Speaker, and wanted to downsize government. He picked as one of his targets the US Office of Technology Assessment. Gingrich killed that agency — ironically, it turned out, just at a mid-1990s turning point when the Internet started taking off and the digital revolution unfolded. Over the past 25 years, Congress definitely could have benefited from OTA’s input, analysis, and advice. Instead, we’ve lacked any clear federal contribution to discussions of digital technology’s upsides and downsides, or of how and when government (which of course funded much basic research and early work building these technologies) should play a role in shaping their ongoing development and impact on society. It was stunningly poor judgment on the part of Gingrich and his fellow legislators.