Jonathan Zittrain Discusses His Thoughts on How Tech Can Be Governed

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on September 18, 2019


During last week’s Berkman Klein’s Luncheon talk, Harvard law professor and cyberlaw expert Jonathan Zittrain was asked to discuss the challenges of governing artificial intelligence technology. Specifically, he was asked to address how different AI and machine learning are from the digital and internet revolution that has preceded it.


Below are a few excerpts from Professor Zittrain, taken from his discussion with Kendra Albert in “Can Tech Be Governed?” (Note: video and podcast of the conversation is available.)


On Generativity


I think the paean I wrote in 2008 to generativity [The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It, Yale University Press] -- a great word that I think might have been suggested in a workshop, as I was otherwise arm-wavingly talking about how excited I and others were about the future of the internet -- the generativity is about the idea that anybody could contribute to a technology.


Now, of course, anybody-- do you really mean anybody? But gosh, compared to the status quo-- and as you know, the book took some pains to talk about typical consumer-facing technologies, and the way in which they were appliance-sized-- that is kind of like, congratulations, here's your technology. Enjoy, but only enjoy in the ways that we allow you to.


And that, as technology gets more sophisticated, the theory went, that could either mean that the appliancization and the control by the vendor, or whoever can influence the vendor, that control can become that much more comprehensive.


Regulating AI


In this field [artificial intelligence], I think, given that so much of the environment in which we exist, that is constructed by and mediated by the technology, is built by people, even though there's no one person who's like, yes, I built that. But the fact that it is built by people creates a clearer and more obvious way of saying to them, this stuff doesn't have to be the way it is.


And in fact, part of when I found my own excitement rising – even in an era where juxtaposed with the excitement, there’s a lot to be mortified about – has been to ask, here's a phenomenon-- how do we regulate it? What parts of it do we allow or not? And again, who is we here that could credibly be doing that?


But rather, what if it acted entirely differently? And I got to say, for me, that has meant maybe a year's long immersion … into thinking about how you'd construct stuff differently, and in particular, the differences between centralized and distributed.


Now, centralized and distributed is still-- it's a network architectural question. It can apply in lots of different areas. … It's not just, again, how do we assess this and do we like it or not, but what would we build? How would it look different-- both in the technology and institutionally, the configurations.


Watch or listen to the entire conversation with Jonathan Zittrain and Kendra Albert: “Can Tech Be Governed?” (Note: video and podcast of the conversation is available.)


Jonathan Zittrain is the George Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Faculty Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. His research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.