February 25, 2020

CITP Tech Policy Boot Camp 2019

[This post was written by Liza Paudel, MPA’21 and Allison Huang, History’20.]

Over Fall Break, the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) hosted 17 current students on a two-day tech policy bootcamp in Washington D.C. The group was a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines including Computer Science, Public Policy, Economics, and History. The students were accompanied by CITP professors and staff, Tithi Chattopadhyay, Ed Felten, Mihir Kshirsagar, and Matt Salganik. Over the course of the two days, students met with technologists, researchers, public policy professionals, and government officials, and learned about the tech policy landscape across the tech industry, regulatory agencies, and research institutions.

On the first day, students met with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips and staff at FTC, and discussed the FTC’s role in anti-trust and consumer protection. This was followed by a reception where students mingled with alumni that work in tech policy-related fields on and off the hill. On the second day, students met with Pablo Chavez ’93, the head of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google Cloud, and researchers at the Brookings Institution. At Brookings, the students and researchers discussed Brookings’ cross-cutting tech policy research initiatives, Artificial Intelligence (AI) governance, its implications for social and foreign policy, as well as the promise of large-scale data analysis for more effective policymaking. Finally, students met with Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States and Assistant Director of Artificial Intelligence Dr. Lynne Parker and staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. At the White House, students learned about how the Executive Branch approaches agenda-setting, stakeholder engagement, and inter-agency collaboration on tech policy.

Some of the broad themes that emerged are highlighted below:

  • Public pressure to do something is mounting. As public awareness of issues like AI systems, protection of personal data, algorithmic bias, and anti-trust, grows, regulatory agencies, industry, and research institutions are feeling the need to prioritize tech policy issues on their agenda. The interest in regulating ‘big tech’ more heavily has also gained momentum, and there seems to be tacit understanding that more regulation is coming. Regulatory agencies and research institutions are thus looking for effective ways to bring together stakeholders and think through the balance between enabling innovation and the necessary regulatory burden. Tech companies, for their part, have their own ethics principles and have created codes of conduct in anticipation. With increased public interest and news coverage, there has also been a rise in misinformation and public confusion. For example, one researcher noted how he has often had to expel away media narratives of ‘Ex-Machina-style AI taking over the world’ that largely shape public perception of the dangers of AI.
  • Everyone’s eyes are on one another. The tech industry is looking to the government, the government to the industry, and research institutions to both, as disparate attempts to gain new understandings of emerging technologies are moving forward on all three. Each is carving out its own space in the still nascent landscape. The relationship between technology companies and policy institutions is also complicated, hindering real collaboration. While the ‘revolving door’ between the two was a recurring theme in discussions, the old schism between the public and the private continues to persist as well.
  • The problems are interdisciplinary, so should the solutions be. There is both tacit understanding and explicit expression that the government lacks the information and tools to understand and regulate emerging technologies. There is a dearth of technical experts who are also well-versed in policy and legislation, and vice versa. Multiple speakers noted how lawyers do some of this work, but only up to a certain degree because there are technical limitations to their training. Thus, there is a growing need for computer scientists and public policy students to be interdisciplinary in their academic training.

Overall, the tech policy boot camp illustrated the need for Princeton students to nurture interdisciplinary technical and non-technical skills to have impactful and rewarding careers in tech policy.

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