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Biden’s ‘Antitrust Revolution’ Overlooks AI—at Americans’ Peril

Wired | | Jul 27, 2021

AI - Biden’s ‘Antitrust Revolution’ Overlooks AI—at Americans’ PerilA handful of companies have outsize influence on the world’s artificial intelligence. Policymakers must act now to stem the rise of powerful monopolies.

Without intervention, AI could also help undermine democracy–through amplifying misinformation or enabling mass surveillance. The past year and a half has also underscored the impact of algorithmically powered social media, not just on the health of democracy, but on health care itself.

The overall direction and net impact of AI sits on a knife's edge, unless AI R&D and applications are appropriately channeled with wider societal and economic benefits in mind. How can we ensure that?

A handful of US tech companies, including Amazon, Alibaba, Alphabet, Facebook, and Netflix, along with Chinese mega-players such as Baidu, are responsible for $2 of every $3 spent globally on AI. They’re also among the top AI patent holders. Not only do their outsize budgets for AI dwarf others’, including the federal government’s, they also emphasize building internally rather than buying AI. Even though they buy comparatively little, they’ve still cornered the AI startup acquisition market.

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Many of these are early-stage acquisitions, meaning the tech giants integrate the products from these companies into their own portfolios or take IP off the market if it doesn’t suit their strategic purposes and redeploy the talent. According to research from my Digital Planet team, US AI talent is intensely concentrated. The median number of AI employees in the field’s top five employers—Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple—is some 18,000, while the median for companies six to 24 is about 2,500—and it drops significantly from there. Moreover, these companies have near-monopolies of data on key behavioral areas. And they are setting the stage to become the primary suppliers of AI-based products and services to the rest of the world.

Biden's antitrust revolutionaries need a four-step plan to confront the AI revolution.

Antitrust authorities must first be forward-looking. They must recognize that the AI chess pieces being moved today will shape tomorrow’s endgame–particularly in a tech industry with high barriers to entry and early moves that are hard to reverse after scale. Tech antitrust action often occurs after it’s too late. Policymakers should also trace the outlines of multiple future AI scenarios, including a dystopian one. They must imagine, for example, a society that suffers from “algorithmic poverty,” in which users generate data as unpaid “labor,” which is used to train algorithms that in turn displace wage-producing labor.

See:  Lawmakers Take Aim at Big Tech with Push for Sweeping Overhaul of Antitrust

Policymakers must also separate AI applications that are value-enhancing for society, like speeding up scientific research, from others that might be value-destroying, like rapidly creating misinformation echo chambers, even if such developments are valuable for the firms bringing them to market. The economic impact can be broken down into the ways in which AI augments and substitutes existing activities and where it imposes negative social costs.  Such a framework can help regulators provide guidance and guardrails to AI development. Selective taxes, tax breaks, and credits and subsidies can nudge corporate decisionmakers in their investment choices.

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