Politics in enterprise technology – mostly tone deaf

SUMMARY:

Are enterprise vendors ready to respond to policymaker oversight? Are policymakers sufficiently knowledgeable about technology to make informed policies? The answer in both cases is ‘no.’ That’s a dangerous mix.

Capitol hill senatePolitics in enterprise technology is a tough topic. Few want to talk openly about positions they may take, fewer still have a clear idea what they should be doing.

Ever since I first saw the Brexit result and then sat through the horror of watching Donald Trump get elected as POTUS45, it has become dazzlingly apparent just how unprepared the technology sector is to venture into the murky waters of political intrigue. And yet that’s exactly what has to happen.

Keeping quiet

As Stuart has noted and I have alluded to at the time of quarterly financial reporting, enterprise technology vendors have been remarkably reticent to proffer an opinion about the impact that both Brexit, and latterly, the posturing on Capitol Hill, will mean to them and their customers.

Enterprise technology executives don’t want to appear too eager for a bonanza coming out of re-written legislation in a post-Brexit scenario. They know it does no good to stoke the fire of fear when the City of London is already girding its loins and shopping for new financial centers. They know it does no good to talk re-organized supply chains, even though that seems inevitable. At least not publicly.

The earliest indication that Brexit was having an impact was when Infosys announced the canning of a $300 million RBS project. Personally, I thought RBS used Brexit as an excuse to dump a poorly thought through project. Since then, very little has been said publicly that you could argue as controversial let alone insightful. If anything, we observe a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Naivety

In the U.S., the recent shellacking dished out to Twitter, Facebook and Google demonstrated an incredible degree of naivety among tech leaders who chose not to tip up in Washington at a time when they could have made a positive impact. It seems they learned almost nothing from the earlier genuflecting appearances of Ginni Rometty CEO IBM and Safra Catz, co-CEO Oracle on both the Trump Transition teams and subsequent Strategy Forum.

Rometty, in particular, was quick to pimp IBM’s credentials in what I thought was a crude pitch to ‘stick with us.’ In fairness to her, Rometty found a fairly graceful way to depart the crumbling strategy forum. The Register expressed it well when it said:

In summary, racism is bad, we left a dying forum, and of course we still want Uncle Sam’s dollars.

Others are not so kind but disarmingly honest. One senior executive who prefers to remain unnamed, recently put it this way:

The technology industry and Silicon Valley in particular is utterly tone deaf.

That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. Other executives who are prepared to talk privately have expressed similar views but in the public domain? Not so much. Why?

It is hard to know for certain, but my sense is that technology vendors recognize they are under the spotlight but are largely uncertain how to respond. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that tech leaders are in violent disagreement with certain U.S. social policies. Witness the LBGT issues which surfaced last year. And then there is the H1-B visa topic.

All of that is not to say that technology vendors are doing nothing on the topic of managing regulation as it impacts the technologies they wish to deploy.

As I reported yesterday, Workday’s Leighanne Levensaler made a strong case for viewing the enterprise sector differently to the consumer technology companies, while at the same time recognizing that technology vendors have a responsibility to their customers, and, by implication to the wider public, to ensure that new technologies like AI, do not lead to unintended problems.

New research unit

A more worrying aspect surfaces in a recent Quartz story that suggests the industry has a long way to go.

…if you look for research on how artificial intelligence affects society—like how algorithms used in criminal justice can discriminate against people of color, or whether data used to train AI contains implicit bias against women and minorities—there’s almost no academic or corporate research to be found.

Kate Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and Meredith Whittaker, founder of Open Research at Google, want to change that. They announced today the AI Now Institute, a research organization to explore how AI is affecting society at large. AI Now will be cross-disciplinary, bridging the gap between data scientists, lawyers, sociologists, and economists studying the implementation of artificial intelligence.

A good start? We shall see.

Policymaker ignorance

But in the meantime, lawmakers will need to get up to speed with technology advances because there is no way for regulation to proceed in a purposeful manner unless lawmakers understand at least the rudiments of the ‘new.’ In this context, I worry that people in power are woefully ignorant. This from Stuart:

The British Home Secretary wears her tech ignorance with pride. Sadly she’s not alone, on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s time for a digitally-savvy generation of policymakers.

This is dangerous.

My take

These are uncertain times for enterprise vendors who are looking to technologies like AI as a way of improving their offerings. The unintended consequences question has yet to be adequately addressed by either vendors or policymakers. Doing nothing is not an option and while research is welcome, much more needs to be done.

Make no mistake. Technology vendors will find themselves increasingly under policymaker scrutiny across multiple fronts. AI is only one. Others include security and tax avoidance. Their ability to respond in a mature manner is some way off. That has to change. Now is the time for vendors to assess their ability to influence policy formation across all fronts for everyone’s benefit.

Image credit - public images

Disclosure - Workday and Oracle are premier partners at the time of writing.