Digital Liberty Op-Ed in The Hill: History Shows the Need for Liberty in AI Infrastructure

On Friday, Digital Liberty Executive Director James Erwin published an article in The Hill warning US lawmakers against taking any measures to nationalize artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure. Erwin’s exploration of the historical record demonstrates that “we should embrace the opposite approach: unfettered experimentation driven by market demand with a light-touch regulatory framework.” 

Erwin starts his examination of history with the “cautionary tale” of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) who attempted to work with the private sector to build more bombs and explore peaceful applications: 

The government prioritized developing nuclear weapons over peaceful electricity generation, which could have reduced costs to consumers to near zero over time. In the course of developing thermonuclear weapons, the AEC tested bombs in the Mojave Desert within sight of Las Vegas and lied about it, and those experiments may have given John Wayne cancer. Hydrogen bomb testing at Bikini Atoll made nearby islands uninhabitable to the natives. By the 1970s, the AEC’s abysmal environmental record had so discredited the idea of nuclear energy that the agency was scrapped and replaced with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission….Since 1990, we have closed more plants than we have opened in this country, and overregulation of clean, renewable nuclear energy remains a relevant political issue today. 

The disastrous model of the AEC, however, did not prove to be an isolated misstep. Erwin points to another unnecessarily significant technological delay that resulted from government control over the infrastructure – the internet: 

While the official “birthday” of the internet is held to be Jan. 1, 1983, the Department of Defense began development on the prototype Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) as early as 1966. According to the University of Georgia, “ARPANET was a great success but membership was limited to certain academic and research organizations who had contracts with the Defense Department”….Jan. 1, 1983, is the birthday of the internet because that was when a universal language first linked these disparate networks. The pace of technological innovation has increased exponentially ever since, far outpacing DoD’s efforts. Again, fear of the unknown justified government control, which in turn delayed the internet by as much as 17 years. 

Erwin recognizes that government control in AI would “likely slow down miraculous breakthroughs (see, for example, how AI can help stroke victims walk again) and actually increase the probability that the public will be harmed by bureaucratic mismanagement.” Given that nationalizing the internet and nuclear energy delayed our nation’s progress by decades, our country must not repeat the mistakes from our past.  

Click here to read the full op-ed.