“WHERE’S OTA NOW WE REALLY NEED IT?” Article by Hazel Henderson

© By Hazel Henderson 2018

The US Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)in the 1970s to prepare law-makers with knowledge needed when questioning witnesses like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on how their use of personal data drove their algorithms for vast profits. Through the 1980s OTA provided congressmembers with needed background on all the technologies under public debate on their possible impacts on health, society and the environment.

OTA marshalled top experts from US universities and laboratories for their reports on future problems and possibilities…..but gored too many sacred cows and special interests.  In 1996 Congress then slayed its OTA messenger.

Fast forward to recent hearings on Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter on Russian hacking of our 2016 election. Embarrassingly, congressmembers were caught on camera, blindsided, ignorant of the technologies these giant companies use to build their billions of users and outsize profits.

In our TV show “Social Media in the Crosshairs” I and NASA Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell explore the need for oversight, new business models and possible anti-trust breakup of these social media monopolies.  They successfully exploit the “winner-take-all” network effects of their internet-based platforms.  We discussed ways people can protect themselves, their privacy, autonomy and safety from the dangers of hackers, spyware and cyber-attacks.  Data scientist-musician Jaron Lanier advises: “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Accounts Right Now “(2018)!

As the public faces the threats from automation, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and the biased algorithms now controlling our daily lives, members of Congress are calling for restoring the dormant OTA.  The FTC and other agencies try to replicate OTA’s services.  How else can they question these deeper issues and how these technologies are threatening our privacy, millions of jobs and even disrupting electric grids and financial services?

A report for McKinsey Global Institute “Notes From the AI Frontier: Applications and Value of Deep Learning “looks at 400 companies and how AI is expected to increase efficiency and profitability across 19 industrial sectors.  No mention for what broader public purpose beyond private sector profit, the questions asked in all OTA studies.

Unsurprisingly, these advanced AI techniques teach computer algorithms to take over ever more tasks requiring “deep mind” judgements based on human brain functions.  For example, as Lanier points out: training AI systems to translate languages requires feeding them human translators’ knowledge. Then, the human translators’ jobs disappear!

This McKinsey report notes that these “deep mind “capabilities driven by such machine learning require ever more access to personal data from humans. So consumers must be ever more closely monitored, tracked and surveilled to feed these computer algorithms. Only one of the 19 industrial sectors surveyed referenced any public interest or social purposes. The entire report focuses on “value” to companies, i.e. equated with increasing monetary revenues.

McKinsey’s bullish conclusion: that progress in AI is expected to yield between $ 3.5 and $5.8 trillion of additional revenues for these commercial sectors.  Enter OTA, with its charter: would have begun by asking what public purpose was to be served and then assessing AI’s long-term social and environmental impacts, costs and consequences for all segments of the US population.  An OTA report on social media, robots, automation, video-game addiction, and rapid digitalization of all sectors is needed NOW!

Stay tuned.