There are certain skills citizens should develop in school and nurture throughout their careers. Skills such as empathy, grit, wonder, and growth-mindset. These are often referred to as non-cognitive, twenty-first century, or intangible skills. They can empower an individual to live a fulfilling and prosperous life.
I've recently started to believe that dealing with ambiguity is another critical non-cognitive skill. This skill requires an individual to be comfortable with committing to an answer when there is no right answer. To be able to take in multiple inputs (perspectives, facts, etc.) and make a decision. To not only strive to make the best decision that can be made, but to be aware of the impact that decision may have. And to use that awareness of potential impact(s) to make an even more optimal decision.
Learning to deal with ambiguity is the antithesis of a multiple-choice test. The latter has one correct answer. Many situations in the real-world have no clear right answer. For example as new technologies emerge, regulations for those technologies can rarely be organized into a A, B, C, or D answer. The answer is there is no right answer. And we will need citizens that are capable of making decisions that are ethical and value driven. Decisions that if audited, show that the citizen made the best decision they could given the information available.
While certain questions and decisions will have narrow consequences, others will be far-reaching. In the article "Tech Giants Join Forces to Score AI Chips", the author describes how tech companies need to align around a benchmark for measuring how well computer chips perform artificial intelligence tasks:
While esoteric, the process of devising benchmarks can be surprisingly contentious, involving fierce technical battles and corporate politics. Participants are often the same companies that have heavy stakes in the results of the tests—namely, chip makers and cloud computing providers who use the scores to publicly boast about the advantages of their products and services. It is a bit like inviting students to craft the questions for an exam they’re about to take.
If you're the mediator, or a representative of a company building such chips, how do you navigate this situation? How do you deal with the ambiguity? How do you approach understanding the perspectives and goals of the other parties? How do you take a stance and recognize when it's more productive to shift your stance even if it comes with a negative cost to you.
In a white paper by Senator Mark Warner, he describes potential policies for regulating social media and tech firms. In one of the sections he talks about "dark patterns":
Dark patterns are user interfaces that have been intentionally designed to sway (or trick) users towards taking actions they would otherwise not take under effective, informed consent. Often, these interfaces exploit the power of defaults - framing a user choice as agreeing with a skewed default option (which benefits the service provider) and minimizing alternative options available to the user.
One drawback of codifying this prohibition in statute is that the law may be slow to address novel forms of these practices not anticipated by drafters.
He gives the example of Facebook asking users to provide access to their address book, and not giving the user a clear YES / NO option. The product design skews the passive user to selecting the YES option.
And thus how do you regulate this? As a free product that users have the choice to not use, should Facebook be regulated in how they build their product? How will such regulation impact other companies ability to innovate? How would you introduce regulation for something that seems clear today, but may become ambiguous in the future? Although your stance may make sense today, tomorrow a new company or technology may break it. Would you be able to adapt? As Mark Warner writes, can a law be written in such a way that it anticipates future problem areas?
As new technologies emerge the level of ambiguity around how those technologies impact our societal infrastructure increases. And as these technologies impact a majority of citizens, the decisions made around these ambiguous questions will have a far-reaching impact. And thus I hope that the citizens in positions to answer ambiguous questions are comfortable and confident in dealing with ambiguity.