New ASU research highlights interesting side effects of innovation


Emma Greguska

In the not-too-distant future, it will become commonplace to see a car drive by with no one at the wheel. Or perhaps no one inside at all.

Self-driving cars are coming, and reports are they'll be safer, lead to less congestion and have a lower environmental impact than the cars we use today.

Sounds like a win, right?

Not for everyone. Turns out, there are some important players that will be adversely affected by the rise of the semi-autonomous auto: your state and local governments.

Arizona State University School of Public Affairs professor Kevin DeSouza wrote about the unintended consequences presented by self-driving cars in a recent article for Slate Magazine’s Future Tense blog.

Driverless vehicles, he wrote, "will pose surprising challenges to local governments and communities" who stand to lose "deep revenue sources acquired from driving-related violations such as speeding tickets and DUIs."

No one likes paying speeding tickets, and of course no one wishes for more inebriated drivers to help fill municipal coffers. But the fact is, collecting fines for improper driving provides a lot of cash to increasingly cash-strapped local authorities. Computer-driven cars won't make the same mistakes that people do.

It's an important side effect to consider as technology marches forward. And there are others.

DeSouza worked with colleague David Swindell, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, to lead a team of doctoral and post-doctoral students in research that explores how everything from self-driving cars to drones to artificial intelligence will affect society in the very near future.

That research was the basis for a May 2015 report published by the Brookings Institution.

Two areas the team found highly likely to experience negative impacts as a result of advancing technology were immigration and income inequality.

As far as immigration, DeSouza cites what is already happening in countries like Australia that are using technology to determine what kinds of professionals they need, be they engineers, hairdressers or teachers, and then recruiting them to come to that country.

He said more countries need to develop similar technology.

“If governments do not know how to build platforms to bring these individuals together, you are going to run the risk of these individuals moving away because borders are going to become irrelevant,” DeSouza said.

In the same way, the proliferation of drones and artificial intelligence threatens increased job losses due to the technology’s replacing humans in delivery positions or factories. And, because those types of positions usually require minimal skill or education, the replaced worker will find it harder to obtain alternative employment, resulting in an even larger income gap.

What’s even more alarming, DeSouza said, is that the very phenomenon of “exponential technological advancement” that is pushing younger, less-educated workers out of factory-type positions is also used by them (in the form of personal computers, iPhones, etc.) to socialize with people halfway around the world in online communities who are all too ready to take advantage of their disenchantment in order to radicalize them.

“So radicalization and income inequality and the whole online networks where all these messages are spread is very troublesome to me,” he said. “And I think income inequality today, we have a situation where we are still not finding ways to have technology be leveraged to help people get out of poverty.”

So what to do?

DeSouza and Swindell’s team found that in order for advancing technologies to fulfill their intended purposes without negative consequences, preparation is key.

“The public sector will have to increasingly become more proactive when it comes to managing these technologies,” said Kendra Smith, a post-doctoral student in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions who researched the topic with DeSouza and Swindell.

What that means, DeSouza said, is “being more open and transparent in terms of innovation.”

He points to XPRIZE, an open innovation, prize-based competition that invites non-governmental parties to try their hand at building various technological devices. XPRIZE began as engineer Peter Diamandis’ response to governmental refusal to financially support the development and launch of a new spaceflight instrument.

By petitioning the public to build the spaceflight instrument for a monetary prize, XPRIZE essentially changed the mold of how technological advancement can be funded and realized.

“While [XPRIZE] paid out only $10 million, the people who invested in building the spacecrafts leveed out more than $40 million. So they got a 4-to-1 return. And now we have this whole private space market,” DeSouza said.

Another instance where embracing open innovation led to positive results was when launched. Initially a disaster, the site finally got up and running after a group of techno-enthusiast volunteers in D.C. – who would come to be known as “18F” – offered their services to resolve the issues at a rate that private contractors, who would have traditionally been tasked with the job, wouldn’t have been able to.

Examples like XPRIZE and 18F show how society is capable of handling technological advancements in new ways.

Besides embracing open innovation, DeSouza said thinking ahead about how to manage communities of the future rather than concentrating on how to manage them now, as well as “building a culture of experimentation” are integral to humankind living in harmony with advancing technology.

“I think government is capable,” DeSouza said. “It’s just whether it wants to or not.”