Innovation and technology have long been popular themes on EconTalk, and host Russ Roberts has never been shy about their potential downsides. In this episode, these downsides are front and center in his conversation with futurist and author Amy Webb.  In her book, The Big Nine, Webb worries that many of the changes being wrought by artificial intelligence (AI) won’t be welcome.  The “Big Nine” are the tech giants controlling the research in AI; Webb refers to the US six as the G-mafia and  the Chinese three as BAT.

What are the policy (and personal!) implications of a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly a part of our lives? Are we so taken with the ease and comfort we’ve been offered thus far that we don’t see the real dangers lurking beneath the surface? What’s the real problem with the work of the Big Nine? Should we worry less about our data when we don’t live in an authoritarian regime, or when we do?


1- The conversation opens with a discussion of the use of AI in China, particularly for the purpose of deriving a “social score” which can be used to publicly shame people. Roberts notes that the outcry against such a use of technology seems greater outside of China than within. Should Chinese citizens be more worried? What does Roberts mean when he says, “… I think we have to be, as you hinted at, you have to be open-minded that maybe this will make a better Chinese society, as defined by them”?


2- Would you buy an Amazon (Alexa) microwave? (What if it keeps you from snacking without having exercised first?) How would the benefits outweigh the costs (or vice versa) for you?


3- Webb’s concerns about China’s use of AI aren’t alleviated by looking at the G-Mafia, while Roberts retains some optimism that competition might serve to mitigate some of Webb’s concerns. Webb argues that concerns about data safety, while legitimate, are only the tip of the iceberg. “Why has the marketplace not punished the Big Nine,” as Webb asks? Have you done anything to “punish” them (like deleting your Facebook page or switching to DuckDuckGo for search)? Why (or why not)?


4- The conversation turns toward possible solutions to the problems posed by the Big Nine. Webb asserts, “introducing competition at this point may not elicit the same type of responses that you might see in other market sectors, in other industries.” What does she mean? To what extent does it make sense to think of AI as a public good?


5- What does she mean when she says,”What concerns me is that we do not have a singular set of guardrails that are global in nature. We don’t have norms and standards. I’m not in favor of regulation. On the other hand, we don’t have any kind of agreed-upon ideas for who and what to optimize for, under what circumstances.” What might such guardrails look like? To what extent has Webb convinced you that we need them?