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Artificial Intelligence May Help Unravel Red Tape

A woman wearing red tape over her mouth.Hector Guerrero—AFP/Getty Images

Did you know that the origin of the term “red tape” comes from red ribbons used to tie up oodles of legal documents? Me neither. I learned it in Brian O’Keefe’s masterful explication of the pesky problem of red tape, which appears on the cover of the just-out issue of Fortune.

This is one of the articles we now refer to as “longform.” It can’t be summarized in a tweet, or even an essay topping a daily newsletter about the technology industry. What I can tell you briefly is that the problem is more persistent than you think. Combating red tape has confounded many a well-meaning crusader against it. Indeed, O’Keefe surfaces an argument that yards of red tape come from an unlikely source: business lobbyists who layer on restrictions and provisos to regulations that themselves become problematic rules that take armies of compliance officials to follow.

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If there’s a bright spot in this report, it is the potential for technology to provide solutions. One analyst notes that the U.S. rulemaking machine is adept at adding rules but not removing them. There’s also no database of complaints about rules and therefore no “way to analyze the patterns and identify overlaps that need addressing.” If ever there were a perfect opportunity to unleash the power of deep learning, this is it.

For more on red tape, watch:

Indeed, O’Keefe notes that IBM (IBM) recently bought the consulting firm Promontory Financial Group, which helps clients navigate regulations. It plans to marry Promontory’s expertise with the artificial intelligence of its Watson technology to make better compliance systems. David Kenny, the head of IBM’s Watson unit, suggests the approach could work with other industries, including pharmaceuticals and self-driving cars. “After all,” concludes O’Keefe, “humans haven’t been able to eliminate red tape. We might as well let the computers have a try.”

Have an uncomplicated day.