Terrified by Technology

How Systemic Bias Distorts U.S. Legal and Regulatory Responses to Emerging Technology

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

—Marie Curie

Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the systemic biases we possess and how those biases preclude us from collectively living out the true meaning of our national creed. But to fully understand systemic bias we must acknowledge that it is pervasive and extends beyond the contexts of race, privilege, and economic status. Understanding all forms of systemic bias helps us to better understand ourselves and our shortcomings. At first glance, a human bias against emerging technology caused by systemic risk misperception might seem uninteresting or unimportant. But this Article demonstrates how the presence of systemic bias anywhere, even in an area as unexpected as technology regulation, creates inefficiencies and inequalities that exact heavy costs in the form of human lives, standards of living, and lost economic opportunities. The decision to regulate or implement an emerging technology, like any other complex decision, naturally involves some form of cost-benefit or risk-reward analysis. However, in the context of emerging technology, that analysis is biased by systemic risk misperception. Immutable characteristics existing in emerging technology combine with interrelated characteristics in human decisionmakers and regulators to inflate perceptions of risks and depress perceptions of benefits. This artificial shifting of cost-benefit curves results in suboptimal legislative and regulatory responses to emerging technology, and ultimately, in the loss of American lives.

a. Jeffrey & Susan Brotman Professor of Law, University of Washington School of Law, J.D., Harvard Law School, B.A. in Economics, U.C. Berkeley.

b. J.D. candidate, Columbia Law School, B.A. in Government and Economics, Claremont McKenna College.

The authors are grateful for the excellent insight and comments of Scott Launius, Chryssa Deliganis, Jonathan Moskow, Irwin Yoon, Alyse Merritt, George Webb, James Anderson, Louise Anderson, and Sophia Calandrillo. Thanks as well to the Jeffrey & Susan Brotman Professorship for its generous financial support.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.