Thursday, September 27, 2018

Is Democracy Dying? - Irrelevance of most humans in a technocratic future...

I want to point to the October issue of the Atlantic Magazine, which carries out the manifesto published in its first issue, in 1857, to “endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” Editor Jeffrey Goldberg has solicited a series of articles on the current state of the U.S. The Anchor article is Jeffrey Rosen's "Madison vs. the Mob." Some comments by Rosen:
The goal in America today is to resurrect the primacy of reason over passion—what we are watching now is the struggle between logos and pathos. The central question in our democratic age is this: Is it possible to slow down the direct expression of popular passion? The answer to this question is not obvious...Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.
I find the article by Yuval Noah Harari (author of "Sapiens" and "Homo Deus") titled "Why Technology Favors Tyranny" most sobersing and compelling. Echoing the arguments in his second book, he asserts that
...together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.
He points to the coming irrelevance of most humans beings, except for a small elite caste that runs the whole show.
Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information...What will happen to this view of life as we rely on AI to make ever more decisions for us? Even now we trust Netflix to recommend movies and Spotify to pick music we’ll like. But why should AI’s helpfulness stop there?...
It’s not so hard to see how AI could one day make better decisions than we do about careers, and perhaps even about relationships. But once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and whom to date or even marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision making, and our conception of life will need to change. Democratic elections and free markets might cease to make sense. So might most religions and works of art. Imagine Anna Karenina taking out her smartphone and asking Siri whether she should stay married to Karenin or elope with the dashing Count Vronsky.
Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.

I insert here a clip from the end of Harari's "Homo Deus" book:
…if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:
1.​Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
2.​Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
3.​Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:
1.​Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2.​What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
3.​What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?


  1. A recent intdrview with Harari on the this subject.

    Why is liberalism under particular threat from big data?

    Liberalism is based on the assumption that you have privileged access to your own inner world of feelings and thoughts and choices, and nobody outside you can really understand you. This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.

    There’s always been fake news but what’s different this time is that you can tailor the story to particular individuals, because you know the prejudice of this particular individual. The more people believe in free will, that their feelings represent some mystical spiritual capacity, the easier it is to manipulate them, because they won’t think that their feelings are being produced and manipulated by some external system.

    That last sentence kinda nails the problem for me. The standard response this new world is a retreat into a mythology of sanctity of self. This seems ill-founded to me. We need to use something a bit smarter to evaluate of costs and benefits. Or we lose.

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