Is AI a Threat to Democracy?

Yuval Harari, best-selling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, believes that recent technological developments are intimately correlated with the rising authoritarianism in liberal democracies. How so? Firstly, AI and other technologies are making humans feel irrelevant. As machines become more automated and intelligent (AI), genes become decipherable and editable (CRIPR), transactions become safer and independent of tangible value (blockchain), humans will increasingly feel dispensable. The disenfranchised today is not the masses who cannot vote but those who cannot do. The anger demonstrated in Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, in Harari’s view, took place because of anger against an elite that created an economic value system that makes common people disposable.

Harari is not rehashing the old argument that machines will simply automate people out of their jobs. He recognizes that emerging technologies will indeed open new avenues of opportunity and creativity. However, these new opportunities will require high levels of expertise and industriousness and therefore not meet the demand of unskilled laborers like the Industrial Revolution did in the past.

Furthermore, these technologies are also making it easier to monitor and control the population. The surveillance industry is booming worldwide. Computer-Human interfaces are becoming more sophisticated to the point where they soon will be able to detect thoughts and inner emotions. Political propaganda can be effectively deployed, quickly blurring the line between fact and fiction in ways unimaginable before. The combination of AI and digital connectivity thrives in centralized systems present in autocratic regimes therefore giving them an advantage of distributed systems of power that exist in democracies. This could be a game-changer in the geopolitical balance of power since in the past democratic regimes were more conducive to innovation and therefore to economic hegemony.

Finally, Harari sees the increasing transfer of authority to machines as a crucial threat to liberal democracies. As algorithms grow exponentially, so our reliance on them for decision making. Just think about how much we rely on Google today for driving directions and seeking information we do not know. As we outsource our thinking to AI systems, the more power we give them to run our lives.

What should we do? Harari suggest a two-pronged approach: understanding better the human mind and regulating the ownership of data. On the first one, the author believes that investments in the development of AI should be matched by investment on brain research to uncover what strengthens and cultivates human intelligence. This is not just limited to cognition but other aspects such as ethics and creativity. On the second one, he proposes steps to diminish the concentration of data in the hands of few. Empowering people to take ownership of their personal data should become a priority for citizens in all levels of society.

The author stands out for his uncanny ability to explain complex issues into clear concepts. While his analysis does not account for all the trends driving the slide of democracy globally, we do well to heed his warnings. Digital tyranny is here to stay. If it remains unchecked it will only grow, eroding our cherished ideals of freedom, equality, and the value of the individual.

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Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. Do you take steps to safeguard your personal data?

Q2. Do you agree with Harari’s assertion that AI tends to favor dictatorships?

Q3. How can technology strengthen rather than erode personal freedoms?

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