FTX crash illustrates Congress’s weakness on tech. Here’s a solution
Last week, both the American electorate and the cryosphere were on edge. As votes were cast and returns reported, the popular FTX crypto marketplace fell apart amid a shocking accounting scandal. These coinciding events are prescient of the challenges facing the incoming congress. Between the pandemic and President Biden’s campaign agenda, tech issues have been deprioritized. FTX’s collapse, however, demonstrates that they cannot be ignored.
Beyond crypto, artificial intelligence is upending commercial art, cyberthreats plague businesses, quantum computing disruption looms and social media is spinning out of control. All the while China seeks internet hegemony and Russia traps its people behind a digital Iron Curtain. At some point, tech must have its legislative day.
Today, Congress finds itself unequipped. The last Congress included a meager 12 professionals with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) backgrounds, a number unlikely to grow. Yet the immense tech challenges we face may consume this Congress, if not the next. To lay the groundwork for success, Congress should re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
The OTA will be unfamiliar to most. A product of Nixon-era scientific bipartisanship, this legislative branch agency provided Congress with no-nonsense assessments of the interplay between emerging technologies and legislation. It was something of a Congressional Budget Office for tech. While the OTA enjoyed bipartisan support, its run was short. Ultimately, it fell to the cost-cutting of the Contract with America. As the commercial internet was born, Congress ironically torpedoed its STEM capacities.
In the years since, Congress has both acknowledged the need for scientific advice and avoided the necessary commitment. Stepping into the void has been the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service; augmented by skewed agency and lobbyist advice. These agencies lack technical dedication. The past year’s explosive AI innovation has caused some to call 2022 a breakthrough year. Yet, the GAO has only ever produced five AI-centric reports. There have been none published in over a year. Glacial congressional research lags breakneck technology.
What benefits would a resurrected OTA bring? Crucially, technical depth. Today’s emerging tech is more complicated than in the 1990s. Quantum computing, for instance, wields mind-bending quantum mechanics that even physicists agree just don’t make sense. An explanation of the internet protocol might require only a lecture, while understanding quantum qubit superposition might demand a physics degree.
Agency-sized staffing would help manage emerging technology’s challenging diversity and flux. Butting against quantum computing is AI, whose state of the art seems a moving target. Then add crypto, where multiple hacks, meltdowns and crazes illustrate a complex ever-shifting class of software. Beyond this is a world of further STEM developments.
Achieving this expert depth requires dedication. Scientific research must be a constant priority. Pertinent staff need the stability to deepen knowledge and creatively imagine regulatory implications. The OTA would enshrine a permanent place for STEM research in congressional priorities and support it with ample staffing. Compare this to research under the GAO, which lacks a stable expert staff, has thus understandably exhibited lower quality and must exist in an agency centered on audits and investigations. The current model deprioritizes science and fails to create a robust corps of dedicated experts.
Ideally this agency would also prioritize policy breadth. Today’s emerging tech is widely applicable and may transform most policy. AI, for instance, could impact nearly every industry and even alter how we interact with information. AI policy requires an interdisciplinary staff. AI art legislation might require an expert on AI and copyrights. Shipping legislation might require an expert on AI and supply chains. Such a diverse staff could handle unexpected intersections and ensure Congress can adapt to ever evolving innovation.
The remaining question is cost benefit. Regulation in such a dynamic industry is naturally fraught with unintended consequences. While knowledge can’t eliminate the unforeseen, it guides better choices. Importantly, deep technical understanding reveals deep complexity. With technical support, legislators can appreciate the uncertain impact of regulatory effect on unwieldy innovative dynamism. This promotes legislative restraint and minimizes overregulation.
Thankfully, these benefits charge only a modest fee. In the past five years, the GAO returned a remarkable $158 for every dollar budgeted. The original OTA was effective on only $33 million in 2019 dollars, so perhaps GAO returns could fully cover the expenses. With time, the agencies’ technical precision may generate further offsets.
Congress is at a turning point. With slim majorities, rock-bottom approval and a laundry list of tech challenges, legislators can build credibility by investing in technical capacity. Reviving the OTA is a bipartisan idea, with support from both the conservative R Street Institute and progressive Center for American Progress. This could be an easy win for incoming majorities. While an OTA revival won’t solve every issue, it equips Congress to face them head on. A deeper understanding helps balance innovation and humble governance.
Matthew Mittelsteadt is a technologist and research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.