Despite Congress’ eagerness to play detective and ask Mark Zuckerberg important questions about Facebook and its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, its inquisition reminded me more of a naive middle schooler at “Bring your Kid to Work Day” asking their parent’s coworkers how their jobs work.
Some of the most powerful leaders of the United States needed clarification on how free social media sites make money, if there is a difference between Twitter and Facebook, and whether a WhatsApp “email” informs Facebook advertisers.
The situation was objectively funny.
However, when I looked past the tweets and memes, I was horrified by the reality of what had transpired over Zuckerberg’s two days of hearings.
He had gotten away scot-free after withholding information from the public for three years on a breach that had potentially affected the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election. And because Zuckerberg’s testimony went well, Facebook shares jumped which made him $3 billion richer in the process.
I am not anti-Facebook nor anti-Zuckerberg, but I am very scared the government is clueless when it comes to technology and can be too easily pushed around by powerful tech companies. Unfortunately, I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
For example, on March 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation convened a listening session to discuss autonomous vehicles, also known as self-driving cars. The takeaway was laissez-faire to the extreme.
“We are not in the business — we don’t know how — to pick the best technology or to pick the winners,” said Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation. “The market will decide what is the most effective solution.”
Eighteen days later, a woman was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in Tempe, Arizona.
In its faux-ethical capitalistic argument, the government’s approach to dealing with complicated and potentially dangerous technology is to sit back and wait. Tech companies will not optimize for anything except for profits. Before we know it, we’ll be living in a dystopian world.
If this sounds like hyperbole — it’s not.
Rather than trying to desperately catch up with regulation while moving like a sloth compared to the speed of innovation, the government needs to be proactive. Waiting for a technological breakthrough to occur and cause subsequent harm enough to generate a court case is an irresponsible way to legislate.
However, the saddest part in all of this might be that in its current state, the government can’t attract the right people to tackle these complex technologies.
Speaking as a college-aged computer scientist who has interned in Silicon Valley, there is absolutely no incentive to pursue a career in research or consultation for the government.
I’ve heard firsthand of private tech companies paying AI research interns $45/hour with full benefits. If that’s just how much interns are paid, you can imagine why full-timers choose to go the private route and pass on applying for government jobs.
However, there’s more to it than money. The culture is what really pronounces the differences between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.
Flexible work hours. Exposure to other bright young minds. Even liberal policies in testing for marijuana use compared to the government has pushed computer scientists toward private companies.
The result is 40 percent of FBI cyber security positions being unfilled in 2015. That fact confirmed my suspicions and scared me for the future.
I, personally, want to be a part of a cause I am proud of. But with absolutely no incentives to do so within the government sphere, I don’t think it is likely I’ll be part of a solution to this important problem.
Who knows how many others are out there, able and willing to help society research and confront technology’s newest steps forward but hardly recruited to anywhere besides Silicon Valley?
Unless the government makes a radical change to invest in these pursuits — it might not matter. And that aforementioned dystopia might be upon us before we even realize it.
Musa Jamshed, ’19, is the data & graphics editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]