Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (At the Listening Machine Summit, smart policy people in the room had suggestions like “robot privilege.” Such protection would behave like attorney/client privilege—prohibiting law enforcement from luring robots into making a person testify, requiring in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reforming the “third-party directive.”) These questions, a friend points out, aren't regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when, and how those products should come to market.
If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA's expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we're seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.
There's encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don't want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part: DNA's self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA, and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.) By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea—the gene drive—is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It's possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn't pass on malaria, or that simply couldn't reproduce, ending the species as a whole. But who gets to make these decisions?
The good news is that there's both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I've had the pleasure of talking to scientists trying to make gene drive possible who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when, and how the technology should come into play.
We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world. We need a better tradition of talking through the “whethers, whens, and hows” of technologies like listening machines. And we need more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but about what’s desirable.