Big Government

Chuck Schumer's Hasty Plan To Regulate Artificial Intelligence Is a Really Bad Idea

Federal A.I. regulation now will hinder progress, consumer choice, and market competition.


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) announced that he has launched a "major effort to get ahead of artificial intelligence." Basically, he plans to impose federal regulations on artificial intelligence (A.I.) technologies soon. Such new regulations will do for A.I. what federal regulations have already done to crop biotechnology: slow progress way down, deny consumers substantial benefits, and make sure that only Big Tech wins, all while not increasing safety or lowering risks.

Let's briefly review the sorry history of agricultural biotech regulation. When crop biotechnology was just taking off back in the 1980s, several hundred companies were vying to create hundreds of new products and get them quickly to consumers. A cadre of anti-biotech activists vilifying "frankenfoods" made wild claims of unknown risks and lurking biotech catastrophes, which succeeded in scaring the public and legislators about the new technology. Fearing that a spooked Congress could overreact, some well-meaning regulators moved hurriedly in 1986 to cobble together already existing pesticide and food and safety laws to erect a clunky biotech crop regulatory system that in large measure persists today. Many hoped that by forestalling ill-advised congressional action, they could help speed crop biotech products to market. The opposite happened.

The new scheme dramatically slowed the rollout of new biotech crops and livestock. The first biotech crop was not commercialized until 1996. The application seeking approval for the first genetically enhanced food animal, the AquAdvantage salmon, was submitted in 1995. Twenty-six years later it was finally made available to consumers. Onerous regulatory processes delayed biotech food crops with direct consumer benefits, like nonbrowning apples and purple tomatoes with higher nutrient content. And regulatory delays and costs exceeding $100 million for each new biotech variety drove small companies out of business, ultimately leaving the market for biotech crops dominated by a few giant seed companies. Slow, anti-consumer, and anti-competitive, all done purportedly to keep Americans safe. But not a single person has gotten so much as a cough, bellyache, or sniffle from consuming foods made using biotech-enhanced ingredients.

Schumer said he has drafted and circulated a "framework that outlines a new regulatory regime that would prevent potentially catastrophic damage to our country while simultaneously making sure the U.S. advances and leads in this transformative technology." Just as proponents of biotech regulation asserted more than two decades ago, Schumer is claiming that new A.I. regulations are necessary to make Americans safe from A.I.

"Is new AI-specific regulation necessary?" asks UCLA electrical engineer John Villasenor. Not so fast. He points out that "many of the potentially problematic outcomes from AI systems are already addressed by existing frameworks." The Fair Housing Act would apply to an A.I. algorithm that yields racially discriminatory loan decisions. Product liability law would cover driverless car A.I. software. In addition, regulations adopted at the early stage of a technology's development will quickly be outdated and very hard to update later, e.g., agricultural biotech regulation. And new regulations always come with unintended consequences, notes Villasenor, who points to how regulations supposedly aimed at sex trafficking ended up endangering sex workers.

"While emerging AI raises many concerns," observes Villasenor, "it also promises to bring enormous benefits in areas including educationmedicinemanufacturingtransportation safetyagricultureweather forecastingaccess to legal services and more."

The Senate Democrats' statement about Schumer's proposed A.I. framework says that federal A.I. regulations are needed because "urgent action is required for the U.S. to stay ahead of China." Adopting regulations now will have the opposite effect: that is, slowing down research, development, and deployment of new A.I. tools, thus denying Americans speedy and early access to the many benefits of this technology. Just as occurred in the case of agricultural biotech, only big incumbent companies will be able to pay the high costs and endure the delays stemming from overcautious new A.I. regulations. Imposing federal A.I. regulations now will result in an anti-competitive, technologically sluggish A.I. Big Tech cartel.

Hasty federal A.I. regulation will not promote, but instead hinder progress, consumer choice, and market competition. So don't do it.