Put Skynet from The Terminator movies to the back of your mind for a minute, and stay with me on this one.
Certain political leaders are reminding us of their fragile humanity with increasing frequency these days. Prone to wild acts of emotion, and unable to resist the urge to push their personal agenda at the expense of the greater good, it’s enough to make the concept of an AI-controlled government sound utopian by comparison.
I’m not quite naïve enough to think we’re already at a point where our human leaders could be replaced by an all seeing, all knowing, all doing machine, but artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming ever more tantalizing in their potential to simplify, accelerate, and improve many aspects of society and our lives.
Governments are beginning to realize this. We’re already seeing small crumbs of evidence that they understand how AI can make public services more efficient and citizen-friendly. But these are very early days in discussing and figuring out how such technology could help us enforce laws, organize labour and welfare, and so on, in ways most people would be comfortable with.
And if the Facebook AI story is anything to go by, we’re still pretty spooked by the idea of an intelligence that can ‘think’, communicate and potentially make decisions using methods we might not always understand, so a future in which we’re willingly ruled by a digital overlord remains very distant.
What’s more likely – dare I say, inevitable – is that governments will find ways to take advantage of AI in smaller increments, and this will eventually compound to form a political system in which machines are doing most of the ‘thinking’ work.
Unless you believe the singularity is possible, that ‘thinking’ will remain under the control of a far more streamlined government made up of regular, everyday humans. Our greatest hope is that the AI-run aspects of governance are powerful and transparent enough that those humans can’t get away with the deceit, selfishness, and emotion-based political decisions that plague us today.
That said, it would likely be a very different group of people to today running an AI government. If governments do come to rely heavily on technology, it could be a few technologists at the top of the tree – the ones who understand how it all works – who find themselves wielding immense power. With the likes of Mark Zuckerberg already accruing vast political influence to do with as they please, that’s a worrying prospect.
Thankfully, it won’t happen in the way some are fearing it might. Government decision making is so complex, with so many interlinked aspects, that no one or small group of technological minds could comprehend and control it entirely. I also don’t believe people generally hold the Silicon Valley view that technology alone can solve everything. What I’m saying is, let’s embrace AI safe in the knowledge that collectively we’ll be able to keep it and its programmers in check.
If we do, we’re opening a whole new world of possibilities in efficient, logical and honest governance. It’s essential we don’t let the same thing happen with a tech-run government that we’re letting happen with the internet – where power is consolidating into too few hands. That will take a combination of remembering the democratic principles that got us to this point and educating enough people to understand the technology overseeing us. I, for one, am optimistic we can get there. Please tell me I’m not alone.
I’m delivering the keynote at Our Digital Future Summit on September 14, which you can livestream. The summit is part of Our Digital Future film series presented by SAP at Toronto International Film Festival 2017. For more, watch a thought-provoking discussion about how technology is already transforming governments, work and the economy