Can innovation save policy making for technology?

WEF Global Future Council delegates emphasise the need for innovation in policy making amid digital innovation explosion

Humanoid robot Alter 3 at London's Barbican museum. Rapid technology development is outpacing regulators' abilities to provide adequate oversight. Anna Dabrowski / Barbican 
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One of the topics discussed at this week's annual World Economic Forum Global Future Council in Dubai was how governments are coping with setting the rules for disruptive technologies. Given the now daily news coverage on the divergent opinions regarding the threats and opportunities brought by artificial intelligence (AI), it should come as no surprise that policymakers are coming under extreme pressure to do better.

It's not simply the scale of the challenge, with government, industry and other institutions having to consider a wider range of technologies and technology implications than ever before. It is the sheer pace of change driving an unrelenting cycle of innovation and disruption, and, as AI becomes more commonplace, the pace of innovation and disruption will only further accelerate.

As Alice Bunn, director at the UK Space Agency, put it at the WEF meeting this week: "the pace of innovation absolutely outstrips government's ability to move forwards with guidelines that are appropriate for the technology of the day".

According to global market intelligence firm International Data Corporation (IDC), we're in the midst of a digital innovation explosion where an estimated 500 million new logical apps will be created between 2018 and 2023: roughly equal to the number developed over the past four decades. IDC also expects AI-enabled user interfaces and process automation to replace one-third of today's screen-based applications. It is, without doubt, an era of unprecedented change.

It's also change that's largely being driven by forces outside of government: industry, science and the public themselves. Innovation is driven primarily by commerce. To quote an example given by Madeline Carr, director at the United Kingdom's Research Institute for Science of Cyber Security (RISCS) during the WEF meeting, today's new luxury vehicles have four times the amount of software code than the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Such is the pace of commercial innovation.

As new technologies continue to get more and more embedded in public and commercial processes, so the level of disruption to all aspects of government, industry, education and life in general stands to increase.

Carr considers that policy making today is a practice of "decision making under deep uncertainty". What is certain is that the days of evidence-based policy making, as we know it, are numbered.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's party issued a whitepaper in 1999 asserting that government must produce policies "that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures". Whilst this may have been appropriate for the time, it's now becoming increasingly apparent that evidence-based decision making is unlikely to shape forward-looking policy.

So, where do technology policymakers go from here? The Global Future Council panel on policymaking and tech disruption were unanimous on the need for continuous innovation in how policies are shaped for future governance.

The panel made it clear that binary decision making can be a liability in our new 24/7 AI-powered world. Policymakers must acknowledge the inevitability that some decisions will be wrong and be ready to adjust policy accordingly, which makes policy frameworks as important as legislation.

There was a consensus among the policy experts that there is a pressing need for more transparency and more collaboration across science, government and industry. The UK Space Agency director emphasised the need for all players to come to the table to help shape technology policies that are more often than not in the entire planet’s interest.

The technology industry itself is proving to be a valuable source of inspiration for policymakers. Government regulators need to adopt more agile processes that can develop policies that are better shaped to adapt, change and grow. Regulatory sandboxes are already being trialed by various governments to allow experimental approaches to policy development, whilst limiting risks.

However, it may only be when policymakers learn to leverage some of the very technologies they are trying to make rules for, that they will be able to become truly effective in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Expect AI and Big Data to play a greater role in future policy development.