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Too late to prevent being ruled by The Algorithm?

Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams, tells Ben Shapiro why he thinks politicians soon won't matter

Scott Adams

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of Win Bigly (2017), recently offered Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire a curious analysis of where AI in politics is taking us: Adams worries that Donald Trump will be the “Last Human President” and that politics will be dominated by AI algorithms in the future. But he thinks that “the algorithm” will eventually somehow unite us.

From the broadcast:

Scott Adams: “I’ve actually worried that Trump might be the last human president and I mean that literally, in the sense that the algorithms and the social media companies will be able to control the thoughts and the feelings and the attitudes, and even the social policy preferences of the public to such a degree that the politicians will just have to do whatever the public is saying. It’s pretty hard to be a president and do something that 70% of the public doesn’t want you to do. It’s very unusual. So the presidents will be captive to the public. As they are, except the public will not be independently thinking and they won’t be led by the presidents and vice-versa.

I think the algorithms will decide what the public thinks and then the public will tell the president what to do and the president is going to have to do it or get a new job. So it’s possible that even the – because of the complexity of the algorithms, you know, it’s not something that, one person sits down and says, okay, here’s my little equation, I’ll tweak this one, I know how to change it. It’s not only that, it’s complicated. It’s a lot of different inputs. In all likelihood, there is no human being at any of these companies, no single human, who understands how the algorithm works. And that means humans aren’t in charge anymore. It means the algorithm is going to do what it is going to do. And we can maybe say, if you change this variable I’m pretty sure something will happen at this end. But it is not a one-variable situation. There are many variables. It’s sort of like climate change; modeling it is insanely hard. So I think that complexity will mask the fact that the algorithms will start running the show with a little bit of correction from humans.

Ben Shapiro: So you’re suggesting that we may be a lot less skeptical of social media than we even ought to be even those of us on the right who have been skeptical of the left-leaning bias of places like Facebook and YouTube?

Scott Adams: You can be as skeptical as you like; it’s too late. There is nothing that can happen that would stop what I have just described.

Ben Shapiro: The only question I have about that is, what is the agenda of an algorithm? I mean, somebody has to create the parameters for the algorithms in the first place…

Scott Adams: But they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. They can know that tweaking this is likely to change this but since there are so many other things being tweaked, they can’t really know what the end result is going to be.

Ben Shapiro

Ben Shapiro: I mean the assumption is that attempts to manipulate people’s free will by technological companies run by an oligarchic few are probably a bad thing. I mean that’s what you’re suggesting, that Trump has broken the system and a new system is filling it.

Scott Adams: We’re moving from the oligarchic few to this brief time when Trump is stronger than the oligarch to the point where it won’t be the oligarch and it won’t be Trump. Because someday there won’t be a Trump. At that point, the algorithm will be stronger than the oligarchs and money won’t matter anymore.

Ben Shapiro: Okay, and at that point do you think that the United States, because presumably, we’re all thinking somewhat more alike, as this algorithm is controlling us, does it restore some sort of American unity or do things just continue to decay in terms of the polarization of the culture?

Scott Adams: That’s a good question, and a lot of that probably gets to Fox News and maybe a couple of other outlets. Because if Fox News suddenly went out of business, what would the country look like? It would very quickly start to form around whatever communication channels were left? I think as long as Fox is there and CNN and NBC, and the like, we’re going to be two sides for a while but I think the algorithm will drive us to one.

As a news writer, I am not sure I follow Adams’s argument. Media and viewers are a feedback loop. If Fox News disappeared, Schlox News would start up within a month. Fox did not create those viewers; it found them and persuaded them to stay.

It’s also unclear why Adams thinks Donald Trump is in every respect unique. Center right politicians have been making big gains in many jurisdictions in recent years, for example in Canada’s big provinces Ontario and Quebec (both in 2018). Analysts attribute the gains in Canada to the center right’s focus on the economy and jobs, which have also been Trump’s focus. Would the Trumpian style work as well in the absence of economic and job growth?

All of which leaves me wondering whether an algorithm that would cause average voters to stop caring about wages and purchasing power could prevail…

Adams’s partiality to Donald Trump’s style (the “unstoppable clown car”) is worth a brief side trip because it sheds light on what the internet has done to traditional media. In his later-infamous August 2015 blog post, Clown Genius, Adams identifies the persuasion techniques that Trump, author of The Art of the Deal (1987), has used successfully in politics, adding “That is Persuasion 101 and I have seen no one in the media point it out when Trump does it.”

Indeed. Had they read Sales and Marketing 101 textbooks, such as the ones I edited decades ago, they would not only find the techniques listed and explained but discover that they are perennial. If stones could talk, we would likely learn that these techniques were used in the Stone Age.

Adams, “a liberal with an economics degree,” has been thinking about persuasion for a while. Caroline Winter (Bloomberg, 2017) notes similarities between Trump and the scheming canine Dogbert which date from the Nineties, similarities that Adams does not deny (see cover at right).

Michael Schein tells us at Forbes, (2018) “Like a hermit crab that can sense when to skitter along the ocean floor from one host shell to another, Adams has found the perfect mechanism to protect his career in the face of a newspaper industry that is collapsing around him.”

Yes, it’s a collapse and politicians, whatever their schtick, did not cause it. The internet did, by lowering the cost of entry into the news gathering and dissemination business to simply the cost of a connection. The handheld did for the daily paper what the printing press did for the scriptorium. The crisis so many media pros perceive is mainly their own.

Note: The transcript was prepared by Denyse O’Leary, Ottawa, October 31, 2018.

See also: Should robots run for office? A tech analyst sees a threat to democracy if they don’t

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

Too late to prevent being ruled by The Algorithm?