We often hear of the dark side of artificial intelligence (AI), how it will plunge us into a dystopian world of lost privacy and bad automated decisions, culminating in the robots killing us all. Professor Orly Lobel’s The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future (Public Affairs, October 2022) offers a very different view – one of optimism.
Orly’s book is an exuberant and insightful account of the bright side of AI and related digital technologies. Her book is filled with fascinating facts and engaging stories. It’s a refreshing perspective and a wonderful read.
Orly Lobel is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law; University Professor; and Director, Center for Employment and Labor Policy at the U.C. San Diego School of Law. She has written several other terrific books, which are described on her website.
I take a more pessimistic perspective about AI than Orly, but I still loved her book and learned quite a lot. Her book gave me some hope, a much-needed elixir in our dark times. While I still think that there’s a good chance of a robot apocalypse, perhaps there’s a chance it won’t happen, or maybe it won’t be all that bad, or at least maybe it might not happen for a while – so at worst, we’ll have time to enjoy the fruits of the seeds of our destruction.
In all seriousness, though, I have a lot of agreement with Orly because I love technology and don’t think it is evil. When it comes to privacy problems involving technology, most stem from issues of power and accountability involving the creators and users of technology — matters of law and regulation. Technology often wrongly gets blamed.
Whether you’re an AI optimist or pessimist, Orly’s new book is essential reading. You’ll learn a tremendous amount about the promise of AI, and Orly discusses it thoughtfully and with nuance and sophistication. Although her view is optimistic, she is careful and realistic and doesn’t veer into evangelism. This, plus her deep erudition and cogent writing, makes her case quite compelling.
I interviewed Orly about her new book, and here are her answers to my questions.
SOLOVE: For a while, we’ve been witnessing “techlash” – a negative public reaction to technology. Is techlash just a PR problem or does it have a real basis?
LOBEL: While the techlash started as a backlash against tech companies and specific problems associated with Big Tech, it has evolved into more generalized fear and indictment on new technology itself, particularly digital technology and artificial intelligence. There is certainly a real basis for criticizing some deployment of digital technology, including questions about accuracy and manipulation. We should also be concerned with concentration of power and address job loss and wealth distribution and social welfare that shift as a result of automation. And, data security is of course important. In The Equality Machine, I show that the issue is not whether we should be concerned with tech risks – the answer is clearly yes. But often—whether you are looking at hiring algorithms or biometric technology, automated systems that aid law enforcement (such as deciding about bail or sentencing) or in health care (such as an artificial radiologist screening mammograms) or travel (autopilot!), the issue is whether the concerns are unpacked, nuanced, concrete, and balanced—or are they bundled, blunt, abstract, at times overstated, and shaping the conversation in distorted ways. My argument is that it is the latter. And that we need a comparative advantage lens rather than absolutism about the cost and benefits of new technology: how can digital technology including AI improve on our imperfect status quo. Just as understating the risks of technology is problematic so is an exaggerated myopic focus. Techlash dystopia may be an overcorrection to tech utopia. But it equally suffers from reasoning fallacies which translate into policy blind spots.
SOLOVE: What takeaways would you recommend for policymakers from your book?
LOBEL: Policymakers should shift from a reactive defensive lens to a proactive and anticipatory regulatory framework. The Equality Machine celebrates the positive innovations that are being made possible by technological advancement: better health and safety, greater access to medicine and education, more diversity and inclusion in sectors as diverse as the labor market and the dating market. Rather than devoting attention almost exclusively to preventing technology-driven risks, policymaker would do far better if they set their agenda on how public governance could harness technology to serve social goals such as fairness, equality, welfare, health, and justice. Policymakers should strive to bring more rationality in assessing the potential and risks of AI replacing the absolutism lens that pervades contemporary policy debates.
Specifically, if you look at the GDPR, the draft EU AI Act, and the bills currently before Congress (as well as the Biden’s administration recent announcement of an AI Bill of Rights), current regulatory frameworks focus on safeguards against AI. We need to complement safeguards with actively investing in AI and publicly scaling best practices.
SOLOVE: Tech companies often view innovation and regulation as antagonists. Is this the right way to view them?
LOBEL: Not at all. My approach to regulation has always been that better regulation can fuel innovation. It’s true that overly protective regulation can slow down innovation and also make it difficult for smaller companies to compete and enter markets. Similarly, setting defaults that are blunt such as data minimization as the gold standard may slow down the training of better algorithms, but regulation has a positive role to play in creating trust in technology, helping sort out false claims (aka the AI snake oil) and trustworthy AI. The Equality Machine shows how data collection alongside data protection should be seen as an important role for agencies to correct and address some of the greatest challenges we face: inequality, pay inequities, poverty, pandemics, climate, harassment and exclusion. Regulation is also critical in thinking about investing in infrastructure and basic knowledge, not just for-profit incremental improvements upon the technology we already have.
SOLOVE: In The Equality Machine, you describe how technology can change not only our environments, work spaces, health care and learning systems, but also our most intimate lives, homes and family relationships. Do you see these changes as positive developments?
LOBEL: I think the stories and developments I write about in The Equality Machine are deeply personal and universal. Technology is all around us, and increasingly on us and inside us. In chapter 9 for example The Pleasure and Danger of Loving a Robot, I consider the ambivalence most of us have when thinking about how technology can affect our dating and love lives. I started my research being skeptical about love robots and care robots (like an FDA approved baby seal) and tutor robots (like a cute Sesame Street style robot that uses facial and emotional recognition to help children with their math and reading) and robots that will fold our laundry and change diapers. And yet, The Equality Machine showcases how each of us needs to actively consider our normative commitments when it comes to designing social robots. It is a call to have skin in the game when thinking about technology advancement so that we can direct in positive ways. For example, I show how we have choices to make as consumers, parents, patients, lawyers about how to leverage facial recognition for good while protecting against harms; how we can use technology to challenge longstanding gendered power dynamics and racial injustice and stereotypes. Technology is an amazing set of tools that need to be harnessed rather than either resisted/feared or uncritically deployed for any and all purposes.
SOLOVE: Orly’s book is The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future (Public Affairs, Oct 2022). It’s a wonderful read and highly recommended! And, I should note that the advance praise for the book includes glowing blurbs by Lawence Lessig, Frank Pasquale, Martha Minow, Jonathan Zittrain, Dan Ariely, and Daniel Pink, among many others.
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University Law School. Through his company, TeachPrivacy, he has the largest library of computer-based privacy and data security training, with more than 150 courses.