Why Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence are a Threat to Democracy
We’ve reached a fever pitch in all things AI, yet we continue to under value the dangers of a rising ecosystem of open-source algorithms and artificial intelligence unleashed on the world.
Even if we forget Facebook’s role in the 2016 elections and Brexit, whatever it may have been, the regulation of artificial intelligence is highly problematic and that’s bad news for the democratic world of freedom of speech, human rights, privacy and free will online.
From the censorship of banning conspiracy theories, to algorithms intensifying political conflict and ideological unrest, it’s clear artificial intelligence as the new driving force in media, attention and advertising is a dangerous tool for the post-modern era.
The G-MAFIA is AI is just getting Started
In the US, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple (the “G-MAFIA”) are hamstrung by the relentless short-term demands of a capitalistic market where government oversight is nearly impossible on a rising group of tech companies that could dominate how the 21st century plays out with the advent of artificial intelligence and a machine-learning world of everything.
AI coming out of China may be even more dangerous for freedoms online and the institution of democracy globally, but that’s a topic beyond the scope of this article. In China, Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu are consolidating and mining massive amounts of data to fuel the government’s authoritarian ambitions that clearly can be used according to the ideological stance of the Chinese Government and its race to dominate the future of artificial intelligence.
A Lack of AI regulation could Hurt the Middle Class
If we don’t change this trajectory of our inability to regulate algorithms, how will we maintain the sanctity or fairness of institutions like democracy or the rights of the middle class in capitalism in the future, when AI becomes more powerful, more ubiquitous and a sharper weapon for bad actors?
So how could AI threaten democracy? As the historians are fond of reminding us, there’s nothing inevitable about democracy. In a world where algorithms have warped the media and yet companies like Facebook refuse to take responsibility for being a “media company”, there’s a sense of artificial intelligence sided with the 1% in a world where democracy itself can be hijacked by political advertising spend, as we have witnessed first hand in recent years.
Democracies have always had their opponents, but for the first time in history the principal threat to democracy comes from shifting technology and moreover our rising inability to regulate artificial intelligence or algorithms in a way that protects global citizens from bad actors and keeps the internet clean of manipulation and the state-sponsored hacking of strategic national rivals.
How Machine Learning Hype overshadows the dangers
The petty algorithms of micro targeting ads are one thing, but it could be argued predictive algorithms and Big Data are even more serious threats. With only around two million AI engineers globally, the influence of AI on entire nations, healthcare, politics and democracy is only going to increase, at a time when AI is hyped as being the solution to many of our ills and even the golden arrow for the global economy and global GDP. Interesting then that the dangers of AI to democracy have been so well suppressed.
Algorithms are increasingly present in our daily lives and decision making processes, but what happens when they are out of control? What happens when AI hijacks human behavior in ways that were not foreseen? Who is liable and legally responsive for massive levels of collective fraud and political cyber hacking? The United States doesn’t even regulate its most powerful tech monopolies, let alone understand the intricacies of regulating artificial intelligence and the urgency of doing so.
Futurist and NYU professor Amy Webb in her recent book The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity discusses some of the topics I’m interested in here with regards to the impact on humanity of artificial intelligence.
How could artificial intelligence be Dangerous to Humanity?
Technological changes such as artificial intelligence can rarely be rolled back or contained. How do you roll back monopolies like Google or Facebook, Tencent or Amazon from their respective ecosystems? These tech companies are like “utilities” for consumers yet in their disruption of the old they create not only tools for empowerment in the information age, but a system of AI that’s also imprisoning and an attention economy that’s a tool for control. What is the international body that looks at the damages and social cost of these companies? Where is the conscience in AI capitalism?
American democracy is fragile as we head into 2020. Try to imagine the demise of the church as the seat of European power without the rise of the printing press and its subsequent “democratization” of knowledge. Artificial Intelligence could be such a paradigm shift where our behavior, minds and sentiments are the new war field. Micro targeting of voters on Instagram could be akin to how the internet turns people into bots.
Optimization of Algorithms is not the same as progress
Algorithms are like billions of tiny advancements that have an optimization effect — a compounding effect over time — on how public opinion can be manipulated. Little soldiers completely without oversight. Neurological hacking without restraint. Capitalism suffocating and brutally murdering our free will in a supposed democratic state: surveillance capitalism 1, democracy 0. In 2019, freedom is not what you once thought it was.
Obviously Facebook’s threat to democracy is far worse than any previous scandal. At what point do tech monopolies become legally liable? Not in this version of America, and that paints a dangerous future for the wild-wild west of Artificial Intelligence in a world that doesn’t seem to realize its dangers or the need to regulate it (because the scale of doing that is beyond human capability). AI regulation, I’d argue, is more urgent than global warming as a global risk factor to humanity’s survival. Humanity needs to be more cautious in what it does in a world where we increasingly are behaving like Gods.
Deep Learning as Deep Weaponization and failure of governance & regulation
From DeepMind beating humans in games to the rise of generative adversarial networks and a deepfake universe, the dangers of AI to democracy and the ability to debate real issues online are becoming highly problematic, to put it mildly. We are losing a moral compass of the dangers of our own inventions, and due to the rising open-source nature of innovation, accountability is declining not increasing. We are losing the battle of Governance and regulation in AI, and this will be a rising exponential challenge at the same threat level as rising wealth inequality for generations to come.
An algorithm is no more than a finite series of instructions for resolving a problem, which does not require reflection or inventiveness on the part of those performing it. Yet when you create algo nets the size and scale of Facebook, Google, Baidu and ByteDance things can go very very wrong. I can even envision a world where artificial intelligence kills the fair and traditional use of democracy and capitalism as instruments of human stability and collective mechanisms. What would such a world look like? Government by machines and an end of work?
The AI dream is part of the problem
In an era when Silicon Valley and China praise AI as the golden ticket to a technological utopia, it seems taboo to talk about the risks, dangers and threats to humanity that machine learning might lead to. Democracy doesn’t work when freedom of speech is suppressed, when the internet is censored, when monopolies aren't regulated and when their group narrative is worshiped as the future of humanity, without critical thinking.
The advent of the technological state might be the demise of democracy as we know it. Democracy vs. the algorithm means our freedom online dramatically decreases our potential impact on outcomes and our trust in Government will radically decline. This will lead to social unrest and AI will be used to further control and manipulate us instead of empowering us. This is exactly what we are seeing with the global rise of facial recognition and even augmented soldiers using Microsoft’s HoloLens 2.
Democracy is at risk with Sentiment hacking
In the United States, the free flow of ideas can no longer spread unencumbered. Twitter can be hacked by people like AOC, Trump or Elon Musk for their own personal and corporate agendas. Social media creates funnels of attention, which means collective sentiment itself can be easily manipulated. It’s absurd to suggest that democracy works the same as it did before the internet or before advertising algorithms created social unrest and political division at levels we’ve never seen before. It begs the question, what’s next?
Silicon Valley no longer breeds innovation or competition but rather a status-quo of control, attention capture and digital dopamine diversion where we become poorer citizens, less responsible participants in democracy and utterly vulnerable to the weaponization of algorithms for good or for ill. Even to live in such a world feels repressive. The internet has become centralized and the war for our attention has become the realm of bad actors and propaganda machines fueled by AI.
The dark side of algorithms
This means artificial intelligence represents an existential risk to democracy and all future democracies. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube can’t regulate their services, so how can you regulate them? Rising Chinese tech giants are totally outside the control of American regulation. However, in the US, we also suffer from a tragic lack of foresight. We’ve neglected to build in controls for machine learning’s evolution and in particular deep learning, checks and balances that protect humanity, citizens and the internet from long-term consequences, threats and misuses of the technology.
The democratic process requires at least two fundamental mechanisms. The first is a fair and transparent method for collecting and tallying people’s votes. The second is an electorate that’s able to weigh the issues of the day without undue coercion. I’d have to argue that due to artificial intelligence, these no longer take place. Both are endangered, both are in jeopardy due to the malicious internet we have spawned without conscience for our descendants and for the protection of democracy itself.
Business Executives out of control
There’s no going back. Rather than create a grand strategy for AI or for our long-term futures, the federal government has stripped funding from science and tech research, thrown away the keys into the hands of greedy corporations whose own employees cannot even hold them accountable. See Microsoft, see Google, see Facebook.
You can’t schedule your R&D breakthroughs, you cannot screen the complexity of business systems when machine learning is changing future capitalism in ways we don’t even understand. Many engineers don’t understand how AI does what it does, and this shows the nebulous problem and scale of the danger for democracy and freedom online.
The Myth of Human-AI moderator success
Human-moderated AI systems don’t work. If you dig deeper into the role of human mods on Facebook or YouTube this becomes abundantly apparent. It’s also too expensive for these companies to take it very seriously. Democracy therefore is at the mercy of factors we cannot seem to control, even the advancement of a tech in artificial intelligence that’s more likely to go “astray” than we realize in the coming 2020 elections.
Algorithms and artificial intelligence are changing how democracy works at its heart, and its heart is turning black. When political ad campaigns can hack democracy on social media, we now have countless examples of bad decisions that somebody in the G-MAFIA made, probably because they were working fast. AI will continue to “move fast and break things”, but that means if democracy isn’t broken yet, it soon will be.
Footnotes of the beginning of the digital dark age
When the destruction of the media has occurred, it won’t matter how bad it gets for the middle class in the years ahead, AI will be the God of Capitalism for decades to come, long live American freedom, equality and opportunity for all.
Democracy? It might become a footnote of when the world was more human, less automated, when people didn’t behave like machines and of a time in human history when we took our freedom more seriously!