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Beyond Breaking Up Big Tech

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carroll G. Robinson & Michael O. Adams
July 3, 2019

Breaking up, “Big Tech,” companies to protect Americans’ personal data privacy, as well as to protect, encourage and stimulate more local and national economic competition is not enough. 

Eliminating monopolies is important, but there is an even more important (and dangerous) threat that must be addressed: racial discrimination and bias in artificial intelligence (A.I.) algorithms.

Algorithms are the brain of A.I. technology and can be racially discriminatory and biased depending on who does the programing and what information is used to program the software.

A.I. is becoming more broadly available and utilized in our homes, workplaces and public and private sector decision making in a diverse range of areas. These varied areas include mortgage lending, online advertising, police patrols, parole functions, and more. As A.I advances, algorithms should no longer be kept secret by tech companies and beyond independent testing, evaluation and monitoring to help protect the public’s health, safety, welfare and privacy.

To protect against racial and gender discrimination and bias by A.I., we need new policies in the public, non-profit and private sectors that ensure so-called smart technology will not be bought or deployed without the governmental entity or private sector purchaser having a right to secure independent evaluation and monitoring of the software algorithms.

This concern must be a part of the growing conversation about breaking up big technology companies whether you believe they are a monopoly or not.

Breaking up big companies without fixing the problem of A.I. discrimination and bias is not enough. All that breaking them up will lead to is more tech companies with software that will be discriminating against people of color in areas such as healthcare, employment, finances and the legal system broadly.

Not only do we need to protect against A. I. bias and discrimination, we also need to develop policies for the use of facial recognition technology and how law enforcement can use technology to invade our privacy. (See for example James Orenstein’s article, “How Far Can Prosecutors Go?” published in the The New York Times on June 14, 2019 on page A23. See also Elizabeth Joh’s article, “Want to See My Genes? Get a Warrant,” published in the The New York Times on June 13, 2019 on page A27.)

The world is changing and a, “Brave New World,” is dawning upon us. Technological advances are both friend and foe.

Decoding the human genome and DNA are both a shield ( as we develop precision medical treatments) and sword (as improper use by law enforcement and privatization of segments of the human genome and special medical treatments through the patent and copyright process).

These developments are having a disparate impact on the African American community, other communities of color and low-income communities in America.

There is also the issue of the move away from the use of cash in retail commerce to smart payment systems and crypto (digital) currencies. This technologically-driven economic transformation will become a major burden on the poor, people without bank accounts or credit cards and people not on social media, especially senior citizens.

As the fight for customers among platforms such as Apple, Amazon and Facebook grows, the closed nature of each company’s system is going to make it harder for poor and low-income Americans to survive and sustain in this brave new world. (See e.g., Valerie Vande Panne’s article, “The Case to Repair and Not to Replace, Next City,” published on June 17, 2019).

Public administrators must join this conversation and put forward new ideas for managing governance in this age of change — not only in how we run government but also in how we better manage the intersection and interaction with the private and non-profit sectors. As we seek more efficient and cost-effective service delivery, we must be aware of how we use these tools to prevent bias and discrimination.

Addressing these new challenges in the Age of A.I. must be priorities for both policy makers (in the legislative process) and public administrators in the administrative and rule-making processes. 

Authors: Hon. Carroll G. Robinson, Esq. and Dr. Michael O. Adams, PhD are members of the Public Administration and Political Science Department faculty at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.

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