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AI and democracy

from Peter Radford

Just a quick thought prompted by my reading of a talk given by Allison Stanger during the Santa Fe Institute’s 2019 Fall symposium.  First she gives us a nice quote from Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition” who says the question is not …

whether we are the masters or slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy the world and its things.”

This quote obviously resonates with fundamental interest to those of us struggling to understand the economy as we hurtle into the digital age.

The central issue as Stanger describes it is that all the algorithms based on big data, those that increasingly drive chunks of how we deal with each other, are based on a sort of collectivism.  They rely on groups.  They rely on large-scale analysis and the identification of structures detected in seas of data.  They abstract away the individual.

Contrast that with the underlying assumption of western liberal democracy which is intensely individual.  The people who gave us the intellectual tradition upon which liberal democracy is based tried to recapture from the ancient past the notion of an individual, a citizen, from which to construct the political realm.  This was in order to overturn the prior existing oppression — or what was perceived as oppression — exerted by the traditional aristocratic, religious, and military elites.  That oppression was a consequence of notions of group privileges.  So the reaction had to bring the individual to the fore.

So the rights of the individual became paramount.

Let’s set aside that this is a decidedly truncated version of history.  The principle is what matters: there is a clash between the underlying values of big data and of liberal democracy.

Perhaps this is why people like those who run Facebook have such a hard time dealing with privacy.  It is simply something that doesn’t, cannot, exist in their realm.  They have had to abolish it in order to establish their business model.  Their machines trample over us as a consequence.

And we have no way to resist because our value system is protected by the institutions we designed for that purpose.  In particular the nation state and its panoply of laws etc.  The rule of law and the rule of big data have very different foundational principles.  Facebook thinks of itself as apart from the rule of law established in our republic.  They are separate from any law in any state.  They are a global organization answerable to no one.  All that matters is their profitability.  And to produce profits they have to ignore the tenets of liberal democracy.  They, necessarily, have an illiberal worldview.

Our sometimes ambiguous relationship with machinery has always been based on a conflict of values.  Machines embody past information in order to preserve it and make it useful into the future.  They do this reliably and repetitively.  They replace and improve the human element in production by so doing.  This magnifies our productivity and, ultimately, our prosperity.  But the intelligence embodied in the older machines was always extant before the machine.

This is not quite true with artificial intelligence.  Nowadays our machines seek to create intelligence.  They have a realm of their own.  And that realm is based on a worldview at odds with democracy and its basic individual values.

As Stanger pints out, this is why authoritarian regimes have taken to big data like fish to water.  They begin unencumbered by concerns for the individual.  So the Chinese are quite content building all sorts of surveillance machines.  Whereas we in the West are much more ambivalent.

Yet because of the degradation of our pubic sphere and our decades long surrender of socio-economic decision making to the corporate world we find ourselves under surveillance with our institutions unable to protect us.

I don’t want us to get bogged down in a pedantic discussion with this observation.  The basic principle as expressed by Stanger seems to have great importance.  The individualistic basis of liberal democracy appears to be in conflict with the group/big data basis of artificial intelligence.

How do we deal with this?

  1. February 22, 2021 at 8:54 pm

    You ask how to deal with it. Let me suggest a rather relaxed approach that draws a clear line between AI and humans (or not, but then, it would not matter): https://www.s-e-i.ch/archive/AI.htm

  2. Jamie Morgan
  3. A.J. Sutter
    February 23, 2021 at 2:27 am

    The premise of the analogies AI : collective : illiberal :: democracy : individual : liberal is misleading.

    Liberal democracy may include protections for individuals, but liberal democratic politics cannot succeed without collective action. Look to the recent US Senate run-offs in Georgia for a vivid example of this. Similarly, look at the principles of community organizing. It’s an error to see the concept of collective as opposed to the notion of liberal democracy.

    A more nuanced approach is necessary. Not everything collective should be demonized. What’s wrong is when those aspects of democracy that require more tolerance of individualism are excessively collectivized. The meaning of “excessively” is context-dependent. E.g., even the two most sacred individual freedoms to Americans aren’t absolute: both the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms may be limited for the sake of protecting others.

    The disanalogy works in the other direction, too. One of the eternal power plays of authoritarians is divide and conquer. Democratic politcal movements against authoritarians are often blunted when each actor is made to worry about reprisals against family members, even if individuals are willing to sacrifice themselves to the cause (which many are not).

    Yes, AI algorithms can be faulted for dealing too collectively with individuals. But to attempt to draw some larger, sweeping conclusion about ‘individual = good’ / ‘collective = bad’ isn’t a good idea.

  4. pfeffertag
    February 28, 2021 at 2:53 am

    “there is a clash between the underlying values of big data and of liberal democracy”

    There is a clash between government values and democracy. It is an eternal clash for people who have power (in government or private enterprise) have a tendency to find democracy gets in their way.

    It is true that there will be “identification of structures detected in seas of data” for that is its purpose. That is how most social science research is conducted (ineffective in my view) and data gathering is essential to good administration. Where data are anonymised (as in traffic statistics or using searches for “influenza” to predict influenza) no privacy or liberal democracy values are violated.

    Intrusion of privacy can occur where individual data are exploited—particular data, rather than big data. When a business sends you unsolicited, targeted ads for an item you have searched for, it can be irritating but the values of the provider are to serve the individual—and that accords with democratic values.

    Mass data gathering can be a tool of oppression and if “their machines trample over us” it will surely reflect values—but of the people who operate the machines. However, if no democratic value clash is inherent to the gathering of data this is not inevitable. Which is fortunate for computers cannot be uninvented and such data gathering is going to continue forever.

    Governments love data and governments tend to authoritarianism. Democracy has to curb the authoritarianism, not data gathering.

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    March 11, 2021 at 1:39 am

    AI cannot create an institution like democracy because it cannot create the moral and normative foundations of such an institution. AI can write about (use the words) that go with democracy only because humans have given the words to the AI. In other words living democracy (or any other institution) is a different sort of reality than writing about the institution. The two are related. But AI cannot distinguish this relationship either.

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