How AI is already seizing power
We're about to head into a federal election. But government itself is in a fight for its life - and doesn't even know it.
The pillars of society - law, justice and enforcement - are being snatched from the hands of our elected leaders. Algorithmic rules set by international corporations have exploded into the limelight with the Christchurch massacre. But it goes far beyond social media.
AI (Artifical Intelligence) judges your resumes, credit history and performance metrics. AI chooses what you read and watch. AI punishes your credit ratings.
But many of the rules now being imposed by international corporate algorithms have little or no government oversight.
Now futurists are warning civilisation itself is at a crossroads: will we be citizens - or consumers?
Australian political philosopher and futurist Dr Tim Dunlop, who recently authored the book The Future of Everything, warns our digital destiny is ominous: "The technologies of control are increasingly being deployed in ever-more draconian ways, from the workplace to the ballot box."
And society is barely even aware of the immense impact of ungoverned algorithms on our daily lives.
POWER OF COMMAND
We live with technology. We live through technology.
That means we're controlled by how that technology works.
Take the example of a self-driving car: Can you tell it to drive faster than the speed limit? Will it let you park on a yellow line? Will it deliver you to the storefront of a competitor?
Its actions are limited to the rules coded into it.
But who controls the coders?
Employers? Governments? International treaties? Market forces?
Those rules are not necessarily guided by legislators, written in public, consistently applied - or even designed with the public interest in mind.
But they are a new level of governance we've never had to live with before.
The implications are enormous.
Algorithms are reading your curriculum vitae, judging whether to put it on the top of the pile or at the bottom. But is the code it uses sexist? Racist? Ageist?
Algorithms assess your credit history, income level and expenditure habits to judge if you're eligible for a loan. Algorithms already decide whether or not to pick you up for a ride.
Software engineers have become social engineers.
But determining who gets what is supposed to be the domain of politics.
Should algorithms be judges, juries and executioners? Or should they be governed?
Are multi-national corporations up to the responsibility of algorithmic world governance?
"No," says Dr Dunlop. "They are run by self-serving (mainly) men who don't have moral ballast to run a chook raffle, let alone a country or the world. Their own companies are already modelling draconian behaviours in regard to their workers: why would it be any different from any other sort of governance they are involved in?"
He offers a drastic answer: "We need not just to break up the big tech companies as Elizabeth Warren wants to do, we need to bring them into public ownership. They need to be subject to democratic, not market control."
It's taken millennia to evolve the systems of government and justice we have today.
We've been living with corporate algorithms for little more than a decade.
Things are changing. Fast.
And futurists such as Jamie Susskind, barrister, past Fellow of Harvard University's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, and author of Future Politics, warn we'll have to re-invent government.
"Those who control the most powerful technologies will increasingly control the rest of us. And certainly, one way that they might be able to do that is through gathering data about us and using that data to influence or manipulate us," he says.
The art of administration is immensely difficult. Western civilisation tried everything from tribal chiefs and kings through to communism and democracy.
But, we still haven't got it right.
"It's impossible, but we have no choice," Dr Dunlop says. "For all that, we have learned some things. And mainly what we've learned is that massive inequality damages democracy.
"So we need systems and institutions that equalise wealth and therefore power. Revolution and the like arise when elites forget that they need to share."
According to Dr Dunlop, we've forgotten the struggles of history that have given us the free and democratic lives we have.
"It took blood and determination from the vulnerable," he says. "No elite ever gave up power willingly. All they will ever do is share to preserve their own privilege. As Thomas Jefferson said, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure'."
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed it had been able to gather from 5000 different data points on 200 million individual US citizens. This enabled them to identify which voters would be most susceptible to different political messages.
Now, the world is increasingly awash with strongmen.
Authoritarianism is regaining its appeal.
What if a data-crunching firm such as Cambridge Analytica was working for Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy? What if these dictators had got their hands on this trove of information about the habits of each and every one of us?
Susskind says our future isn't yet set. But it may soon be.
"It is fluid, who the power might reside with in the future," he says, "although I regret that it increasingly doesn't look like - if things continue as they are - it will reside in the hands of us, the citizens."
And it's 50-50 whether our new overlords will be governments or corporations.
He says there must be a seismic shift in our awareness: Governments and voters must value data from a citizen's perspective, not that of a customer.
Dr Dunlop says we must refuse to allow market forces to control our politics: "Voting and buying are different. In a market, the winner takes all. In a democracy, even the loser must be protected. Democracy is about protecting the rights of the minority. It is not winner takes all.
"Which is why I want them (big data corporations) - the really big ones - nationalised. We are not a resource to be mined; we are citizens with rights."
THE COMING DATA WAR
Information is power. And we have little idea how much information about our daily lives we are giving up every time we download a new app, browse web pages or enter search terms.
To big business, Dr Dunlop says that data is now more valuable than oil.
And it's mined directly from you.
"Every major business is now, or soon will be, a data organisation," he says. "Data is their primary resource. Woolworths, for example, is a huge real-time experiment in data management drawn from their cash registers, emails, loyalty cards and the like. This governs the emails they send out. Where they place stock in their store. What stock they buy. Their supply chains. We are surveilled in basically every transaction we undertake, online or off."
And that data can be used for much more than marketing.
It can be used to guide what we know. This determines what we believe.
And that affects government at every level.
Dr Dunlop warns we must seize back control of data drawn from our personal lives.
He argues companies must pay for the right to record and process our activities.
But is this even possible?
"Everything is hard to do," Dr Dunlop says. "The horse has already bolted. We nonetheless have to rein it in. There are alternatives, and the first step towards achieving them is to acknowledge their existence. The next step is not letting anyone tell you something can't be done."
Digital technology is muscling in on political functions.
AI surveils the function of free speech, the heart of democracy.
AI guides and compels us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do.
AI assumes the roles of justice - such as the distribution of services, the allocation of jobs and mortgages and insurance….
"Now that tech is colonising the world of the political, is it acceptable for that technology to be developed in judged solely by reference to market principles?" asks Susskind. "My answer is no. I think, rather than seeing the marketisation of politics, we will have to see the politicisation of markets - where we impose political norms and standards on big tech firms."
Big Data firms have assumed, whether they know it or not - and even whether they like it or not - what have traditionally been political powers.
Dr Dunlop says this is why we must come to grips with the value of privacy.
"We haven't forgotten. It's just that to live in the world, you have to use these technologies. You can't - or it is very difficult to - live without a credit card or an email address. We've probably been lulled a bit, but the bottom line is that we need to make sure these industries are regulated so our rights, like privacy, are guaranteed."
But his vision of the future is stark: "There is a theory that we only get change in the wake of a massive disaster, either a natural disaster like a plague or man-made one like a war. It's up to us to achieve change without that."