Technology and Policymakers- Technologists and policymakers largely inhabit two separate worlds. It’s an old problem, one that the British scientist CP Snow identified in a 1959 essay entitled The Two Cultures. He called them sciences and humanities, and pointed to the split as a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. The essay was influential — but 60 years later, nothing has changed.
When Snow was writing, the two cultures theory was largely an interesting societal observation. Today, it’s a crisis. Technology is now deeply intertwined with policy. We’re building complex socio-technical systems at all levels of our society. Software constrains behavior with an efficiency that no law can match. It’s all changing fast; technology is literally creating the world we all live in, and policymakers can’t keep up. Getting it wrong has become increasingly catastrophic. Surviving the future depends in bringing technologists and policymakers together.
Consider artificial intelligence (AI). This technology has the potential to augment human decision-making, eventually replacing notoriously subjective human processes with something fairer, more consistent, faster and more scalable. But it also has the potential to entrench bias and codify inequity, and to act in ways that are unexplainable and undesirable. It can be hacked in new ways, giving attackers from criminals and nation states new capabilities to disrupt and harm. How do we avoid the pitfalls of AI while benefiting from its promise? Or, more specifically, where and how should government step in and regulate what is largely a market-driven industry? The answer requires a deep understanding of both the policy tools available to modern society and the technologies of AI.
But AI is just one of many technological areas that needs policy oversight. We also need to tackle the increasingly critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure. We need to understand both the role of social media platforms in disseminating politically divisive content, and what technology can and cannot to do mitigate its harm. We need policy around the rapidly advancing technologies of bioengineering, such as genome editing and synthetic biology, lest advances cause problems for our species and planet. We’re barely keeping up with regulations on food and water safety — let alone energy policy and climate change. Robotics will soon be a common consumer technology, and we are not ready for it at all.
Addressing these issues will require policymakers and technologists to work together from the ground up. We need to create an environment where technologists get involved in public policy – where there is a viable career path for what has come to be called “public-interest technologists.”
The concept isn’t new, even if the phrase is. There are already professionals who straddle the worlds of technology and policy. They come from the social sciences and from computer science. They work in data science, or tech policy, or public-focused computer science. They worked in Bush and Obama’s White House, or in academia and NGOs. The problem is that there are too few of them; they are all exceptions and they are all exceptional. We need to find them, support them, and scale up whatever the process is that creates them.
There are two aspects to creating a scalable career path for public-interest technologists, and you can think of them as the problems of supply and demand. In the long term, supply will almost certainly be the bigger problem. There simply aren’t enough technologists who want to get involved in public policy. This will only become more critical as technology further permeates our society. We can’t begin to calculate the number of them that our society will need in the coming years and decades.