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Should robots run for office?

A tech analyst sees a threat to democracy if they don’t

In an adapted excerpt from his book Future Politics (2018), “Mr. Robot goes to Washington: How AI will change democracy,” lawyer and tech writer Jamie Susskind envisions AI as not only fighting “fake news” but also voting for us and helping to draft legislation. He explains,

Increasingly, digital technology is eroding the assumptions and conditions that have underpinned democracy for centuries. By now, fake news and polarization are familiar subjects to those interested in democracy’s health. Just last week Facebook announced that it was doubling its ‘security and community’ staff to 20,000. But in the future, we’ll have to grapple with the much more significant idea of AI Democracy, asking which decisions could and should be taken by powerful digital systems, and whether such systems might better represent the people than the politicians we send to Congress. Jamie Susskind, “Mr. Robot goes to Washington: How AI will change democracy” at Fast Company

Having been in the news business as an editor and writer for 45 years, I don’t think there is an increase in fake news if by that you mean an increase in deliberately false information propagated with an intent to deceive. The twentieth century was chock full of it. Whether the volume could be indefinitely increased is a theoretical question: There is a limit to the number of human beings on the planet and, mercifully, to the human attention span.

The internet vastly increased the ability of private individuals to go behind the official sources. The historic significance of Rathergate was not that iconic CBS anchorman Dan Rather was running with a probably false story during the 2004 US presidential election campaign. It was rather that the deception was discovered within hours by bloggers. That scenario wasn’t remotely possible in, say, the 1960s.

 Back in the 60s, if the media decided to bury something, it usually stayed buried. If they decided to push something, it got pushed. How many people do you think knew, during that era, that John Kennedy and his brother Robert were both sexually intimate with screen goddess Marilyn Monroe? The story was buried by the few people with access to it, possibly to protect the “Camelot” legacy that quickly arose after John’s tragic assassination in 1963.

Maybe it didn’t matter. But most people today are freer to decide that for themselves. And many people currently in power or aspiring to advise those in power sound as though they would like AI to rescue them from the consequences. One result is that the very term “fake news” (2017 Word of the Year at Collins’ dictionary) has become a mess of conflicting meanings. Today, it often means no more than information whose dissemination is contrary to some party’s interests.

Susskind would have us know that “Democracy is at a crossroads.” But when hasn’t it been? As a political system, democracy is always one election away from extinction: Voters could intentionally vote so as to become a one-party state and then the Party could amend the Constitution, making it official. If that hasn’t happened in a given jurisdiction for centuries, might we discern a pattern?

I was startled by Susskind’s sense of threat. Why? There has not been a serious war between sovereign states in North America north of the Rio Grande since the close of the War of 1812-1814.*  Even though the United States has 50 states and Canada has 13 provinces/territories, there has not been a civil war either in North America since 1865. Even separatism has largely fizzled out in the francophone Canadian province of Quebec. If you are looking for serious political upheaval to write about, North America is not your best bet.

Jamie Susskind

Jamie Susskind

He then fidgets a familiar string of worry beads:

We tend to talk to those we like and read news that confirms our beliefs, while filtering out information and people we find disagreeable. Technology increasingly allows us to do so. If you are a liberal who uses Twitter to follow races for the U.S. House of Representatives, 90 per cent of the tweets you see (on average) will come from Democrats; if you are a conservative, 90 per cent of the tweets you see will typically come from Republicans.


Denyse O’Leary

And when were things any different? Does Susskind imagine a past in which people were not mainly hearing from their own opinion leaders? In the past, it was socially risky (if not worse) to be seen talking to or reading books by those of another persuasion. Today, it is possible, with a few clicks, to privately hear a different opinion, maybe from Japan or Turkey, never mind from the local incumbent’s opponent. That’s precisely the power that Google’s new search engine for China aims to prevent.

Some of Susskind’s claims are questionable at best: “Unfortunately, our innate tendency toward group polarization means that members of a group who share the same views tend, over time, to become more extreme in those views.” No, not particularly; not if their views do not predispose them toward extremism or violence anyway.

Susskind is not a fan of the marketplace of ideas:

What’s clear is that a marketplace of ideas, attractive though the idea sounds, may not be what’s best. If content is framed and prioritized according to how many clicks it receives (and how much advertising revenue flows as a result) then truth will often be the casualty. If the debate chamber is dominated by whoever has the power to filter, or unleashes the most ferocious army of bots, then the conversation will be skewed in favour of those with the better technology, not necessarily the better ideas. Deliberative democracy needs a forum for civil discussion, not a marketplace of screaming merchants.

Actually, the marketplace of ideas in democracies has always been like this. The bots are comparative newcomers. If we go by some Google employees’ recent attempt to “google” the Hispanic vote, they’re not even winners as yet. And they may never be. For one thing, if the tech monopolies decay, as tech philosopher George Gilder thinks they will, bot ownership will move downscale. The net effect will be more social noise but less social impact for a given noise.

He considers various means of replacing human participation with AI,

In due course, AIs might also take part in the legislative process, helping to draft and amend legislation. And in the long run, we might even allow AIs, incorporated as legal persons, to ‘stand’ for election to administrative and technical positions in government.

He hesitates because such a system does not feel transparent. Then he brightens:

In the past humans were prepared, in the right circumstances, to surrender their political affairs to powerful unseen intelligences. Before they had kings, the Hebrews of the Old Testament lived without earthly politics. They were subject only to the rule of God Himself, bound by the covenant that their forebears had sworn with Him. The ancient Greeks consulted omens and oracles. The Romans looked to the stars. These practices now seem quaint and faraway, inconsistent with what we know of rationality and the scientific method. But they prompt introspection. How far are we prepared to go–what are we prepared to sacrifice–to find a system of government that actually represents the people?

It’s a sobering thought, how far some tech analysts would be prepared to go in order to impose their own vision of order on an unruly but stable political system.

Note: The war was between British North America and the United States. British North America only became “Canada” in 1867.

See also: AI is indeed a threat to democracy. But not in quite the way historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks (Michael Egnor)

How AI could run the world Its killer apps, in physicist Max Tegmark’s tale, include a tsunami of “message” films


Would Google be happier if America were run more like China? This might be a good time to ask

Should robots run for office?