Steve Case, AOL's co-founder and venture investor, is concerned that Big Tech will be able to overtake them in artificial intelligence innovation if the government allows it.
Washington policymakers are currently engaged in various discussions about how to stop AI technology from spiraling out of control. We're losing focus of the AI economy and how to best position humanity to benefit from this new frontier. We don't pay enough attention to which companies are allowed to harness AI potential.
The costs to build the large language model that powers today's generative AI is so prohibitive, that the majority of innovation comes not from small startups but rather Big Tech. This is a significant departure from the usual patterns of innovation, even if it's just because disruptive companies are usually the ones driving the change. In this case, disruption may actually help the incumbents grow, as challengers struggle to gain traction.
The overwhelming focus on public fear of AI could lead policymakers to completely undermine what we call "open-source" AI -- destroying the collaborative model which has allowed a global community to rapidly and iteratively build and improve the technology. This should concern everyone, because while we shouldn't minimize the grave dangers that could arise if AI falls into the wrong hands we also need to realize that if we don't explore this frontier quickly, it will hinder its potential to improve our health, education and other aspects of life in the short- and medium term.
Many have called for government-managed innovations, while focusing on the negative risks. Bureaucrats are distributing AI licenses to select companies, which in most cases are our existing tech giants. This would mean abandoning the formula which has helped America to rise and instead adopting China's top-down industrial policy. We on this side of Pacific have always believed that the best ideas are not orchestrated, but rather come from the collision of random ideas. Washington's most successful efforts are not directed at controlling any rapidly changing industry but rather to create a level playing field that allows the best innovations to be scaled.
If this were to happen in the world of AI, there would be new startups popping up all over the country. The policymakers must ensure that entrepreneurs from all over the country can participate in the race for putting this new technology to use. This means that those outside Silicon Valley who have unique expertise should be able to participate in the AI ecosystem. AI should not be used as a tool to extend the dominance of Silicon Valley's Big Tech.
The innovation economy in America has suffered because America hasn't always been true to its bottom-up approach. It was not due to a lack of technology, but rather because the infrastructure that underpinned the iterative experiments that led to the commercial Internet had been developed in the 1960s. AT&T was able to convince policymakers that it would be too risky to allow outside players to access their closed-access system. In the 1980s the power of the Internet only became apparent when the government broke up Ma Bell using antitrust policies, then created a regulatory framework that forced phone companies to open their networks up to competitors, allowing companies like America Online to begin.
The lessons learned from the Internet can be applied to this brand new frontier. The government should put in place guardrails to maximize AI's benefits while reducing its risks. However, these guardrails shouldn't be in the form licenses which only allow a few players to compete. Congress should focus on legislation that encourages innovation across the nation. It is important to continue developing open-source AI platforms and to take steps to ensure the adoption of the same open access policies by the big tech AI platforms that were adopted nearly half a century ago when the Internet was born.
Washington must find a solution to allow entrepreneurs to take part in AI development and to ensure that the next generation of tech leaders cannot pull them up. Washington should at least be committed to making sure that medical researchers from the Carolinas and Arkansas' agtech startups, as well as clean energy startups located in the Mountain West, are able harness the power AI. If their ideas are successful in the marketplace, their creators will reap the rewards. This new technology shouldn't be used to further divide the tech industry from the rest America. It should connect the two.
Steve Case is a cofounder of America Online and the chairman and CEO of Revolution, an investment firm based in Washington, D.C. He also wrote "The Rise of the Rest": How entrepreneurs from unexpected places are building the new American Dream. Steve Case will be a part of Sen. Schumer’s Forum on AI on October 25.