An Interview with Preston McAfee

Here’s a good interview by the Richmond Fed of Preston McAfee. McAfee was one of the designers of the FCC’s spectrum auctions and used that experience to move from academia to technology firms. He has held top positions at Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. Here’s one issue that I have discussed before, tacit collusion among AIs..

EF: What are the implications of machine learning, if any, for regulators?

McAfee: It is likely to get a lot harder to say why a firm made a particular decision when that decision was driven by machine learning. As companies come more and more to be run by what amount to black box mechanisms, the government needs more capability to deconstruct what those black box mechanisms are doing. Are they illegally colluding? Are they engaging in predatory pricing? Are they committing illegal discrimination and redlining?

So the government’s going to have to develop the capability to take some of those black box mechanisms and simulate them. This, by the way, is a nontrivial thing. It’s not like a flight recorder; it’s distributed among potentially thousands of machines, it could be hundreds of interacting algorithms, and there might be hidden places where thumbs can be put on the scale.

I think another interesting issue now is that price-fixing historically has been the making of an agreement. In fact, what’s specifically illegal is the agreement. You don’t have to actually succeed in rigging the prices, you just have to agree to rig the prices.

The courts have recognized that a wink and a nod is an agreement. That is, we can agree without writing out a contract. So what’s the wink and a nod equivalent for machines? I think this is going somewhat into uncharted territory.


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