On 20 September 2018, the British Academy hosted a Breakfast Briefing, ‘Government by the People in an Age of AI’, with author and barrister Jamie Susskind, as part of the Academy’s upcoming project on democracy.
Marking the publication of his new book, Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, Jamie spoke about the current and future interplay between technology and politics, and began by identifying three significant trends.
The first was the rise of what he calls ‘increasingly capable systems’ including artificial intelligence. Scientists and programmers have now developed machines that can lip-read, transcribe and mimic human speech, and even detect lung cancers better than the best human experts. AI systems now exist for nearly ‘every game you can think of’.
The next trend concerns increasingly integrated technology – often called the ‘Internet of Things’. There are, at any one time, billions of devices connected to the Internet, and in the future such devices will be built into clothes, architecture, public spaces and the human body, blurring distinctions between online and offline, real and virtual, cyberspace and ‘meat space’.
The third trend identified by Jamie is the increasing quantification of society. As he explained, by 2020 there will be at least 40 zettabytes of data in the world – about 3 million books’ worth – for every living person, and we will produce in two days the same amount of information as we have in the entire history of human civilisation.
Jamie then went on to discuss the impact of technology on deliberation, direct democracy, and what he called ‘AI democracy’ and ‘data democracy’, exploring, among other questions, what use humans will be in a future where evermore highly-developed AI systems can more effectively debate and find solutions to the challenges facing us; the extent to which governments will make use of emerging technologies, such as voting apps, that facilitate direct democracy; and how populist parties may exploit the unfair disparity between the sheer amount of data held on each individual and the minimal number of times they are asked to vote.
Afterwards, the discussion opened up to questions from the guests and touched upon the moral and democratic arguments for and against a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; fake news and the obligations and abilities of governments to strike a balance between free speech and truth; the question of how governments can influence the trajectories of big tech companies; and the need to watch nation states evermore carefully in an era of unprecedented technological power.
The British Academy’s forthcoming project, Dilemmas of Democracy, will be a unique project of research and public engagement, bringing together academics, political and civil society, and the public, to explore the history, health, and trajectory of our democracies.