Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we don’t take steps to stop it. “We’re facing not just a technological crisis but a philosophical crisis,” says the author of ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’.
I. The Growing Fear of Irrelevance
There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.
The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.
In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.
Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.
II. A New Useless Class?
Let’s start with jobs and incomes, because whatever liberal democracy’s philosophical appeal, it has gained strength in no small part thanks to a practical advantage: The decentralized approach to decision making that is characteristic of liberalism—in both politics and economics—has allowed liberal democracies to outcompete other states, and to deliver rising affluence to their people.
Liberalism reconciled the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, the faithful with atheists, natives with immigrants, and Europeans with Asians by promising everybody a larger slice of the pie. With a constantly growing pie, that was possible. And the pie may well keep growing. However, economic growth may not solve social problems that are now being created by technological disruption, because such growth is increasingly predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.
Hence as computers take over more routine cognitive jobs, new creative jobs for humans will continue to appear. Many of these new jobs will probably depend on cooperation rather than competition between humans and AI. Human-AI teams will likely prove superior not just to humans, but also to computers working on their own.However, most of the new jobs will presumably demand high levels of expertise and ingenuity, and therefore may not provide an answer to the problem of unemployed unskilled laborers, or workers employable only at extremely low wages. Moreover, as AI continues to improve, even jobs that demand high intelligence and creativity might gradually disappear. The world of chess serves as an example of where things might be heading. For several years after IBM’s computer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, human chess players still flourished; AI was used to train human prodigies, and teams composed of humans plus computers proved superior to computers playing alone.
III. The Rise of Digital Dictatorships
As many people lose their economic value, they might also come to lose their political power. The same technologies that might make billions of people economically irrelevant might also make them easier to monitor and control.
AI frightens many people because they don’t trust it to remain obedient. Science fiction makes much of the possibility that computers or robots will develop consciousness—and shortly thereafter will try to kill all humans. But there is no particular reason to believe that AI will develop consciousness as it becomes more intelligent. We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further.
Consider surveillance. Numerous countries around the world, including several democracies, are busy building unprecedented systems of surveillance. For example, Israel is a leader in the field of surveillance technology, and has created in the occupied West Bank a working prototype for a total-surveillance regime. Already today whenever Palestinians make a phone call, post something on Facebook, or travel from one city to another, they are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones, or spy software. Algorithms analyze the gathered data, helping the Israeli security forces pinpoint and neutralize what they consider to be potential threats. The Palestinians may administer some towns and villages in the West Bank, but the Israelis command the sky, the airwaves, and cyberspace. It therefore takes surprisingly few Israeli soldiers to effectively control the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.
In one incident in October 2017, a Palestinian laborer posted to his private Facebook account a picture of himself in his workplace, alongside a bulldozer. Adjacent to the image he wrote, “Good morning!” A Facebook translation algorithm made a small error when transliterating the Arabic letters. Instead of Ysabechhum (which means “Good morning”), the algorithm identified the letters as Ydbachhum (which means “Hurt them”). Suspecting that the man might be a terrorist intending to use a bulldozer to run people over, Israeli security forces swiftly arrested him. They released him after they realized that the algorithm had made a mistake. Even so, the offending Facebook post was taken down—you can never be too careful. What Palestinians are experiencing today in the West Bank may be just a primitive preview of what billions of people will eventually experience all over the planet.
Imagine, for instance, that the current regime in North Korea gained a more advanced version of this sort of technology in the future. North Koreans might be required to wear a biometric bracelet that monitors everything they do and say, as well as their blood pressure and brain activity. Using the growing understanding of the human brain and drawing on the immense powers of machine learning, the North Korean government might eventually be able to gauge what each and every citizen is thinking at each and every moment. If a North Korean looked at a picture of Kim Jong Un and the biometric sensors picked up telltale signs of anger (higher blood pressure, increased activity in the amygdala), that person could be in the gulag the next day.
The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. Historically, autocracies have faced crippling handicaps in regard to innovation and economic growth. In the late 20th century, democracies usually outperformed dictatorships, because they were far better at processing information. We tend to think about the conflict between democracy and dictatorship as a conflict between two different ethical systems, but it is actually a conflict between two different data-processing systems. Democracy distributes the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given 20th-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. Nobody had the ability to process all available information fast enough and make the right decisions. This is one reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.
However, artificial intelligence may soon swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. In fact, it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze. If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database, you’ll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people. An authoritarian government that orders all its citizens to have their DNA sequenced and to share their medical data with some central authority would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data are strictly private. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.
IV. The Transfer of Authority to Machines
Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information.
As we rely more on Google for answers, our ability to locate information independently diminishes. Already today, “truth” is defined by the top results of a Google search. This process has likewise affected our physical abilities, such as navigating space. People ask Google not just to find information but also to guide them around. Self-driving cars and AI physicians would represent further erosion: While these innovations would put truckers and human doctors out of work, their larger import lies in the continuing transfer of authority and responsibility to machines.
Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision making. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. Works of art—be they Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels, or cheesy Hollywood comedies—usually revolve around the hero having to make some crucial decision. To be or not to be? To listen to my wife and kill King Duncan, or listen to my conscience and spare him? To marry Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy? Christian and Muslim theology similarly focus on the drama of decision making, arguing that everlasting salvation depends on making the right choice.
Nationalization of data by governments could offer one solution; it would certainly curb the power of big corporations. But history suggests that we are not necessarily better off in the hands of overmighty governments. So we had better call upon our scientists, our philosophers, our lawyers, and even our poets to turn their attention to this big question: How do you regulate the ownership of data?
Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.
The New Luddites: Why Former Digital Prophets Are Turning Against Tech
Bryan Appleyard, New Republic
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‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’: What it means and how to respond
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Kevin Kelly on the 12 technological forces that will shape our future
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We will soon have artificial intelligence that can accomplish professional human tasks. Our lives will be totally 100% tracked by ourselves and others. Much of what will happen in the next 30 years is inevitable, driven by technological trends already in motion, and are impossible to halt without halting civilization, says Internet pioneer Kevin Kelly.