One response to several of the recommendations in the Singularity Principles is to fear that “the cure will be worse than the disease”.
The worry is that if central authorities take the initiative to write safety rules into legislation, and to fine organisations that violate these rules, this could lead to corruption, to the suppression of vital innovation, and to the entrenchment of regulatory policies that are counter-productive and out-dated.
Indeed, any time that it is proposed that regulations are imposed on fast-changing technological products, critics can object that government regulations will cause worse problems than the ones they are intended to solve. It is said – with considerable justification – that:
- Regulators are frequently out-of-touch with the latest technological possibilities
- Regulators impose delays and inefficiencies on a market, resulting in companies being out-performed by competitors from other countries with looser regulatory systems
- Regulators can be “captured” by vested interests representing today’s most dominant companies, to the detriment of smaller, less powerful companies that have more innovative ideas.
These concerns all have merit. But they’re no reason to abandon regulations, or to accept the continuation of the risk-laden “anything goes” development culture which, alas, can be found inside many companies.
Instead, these concerns should prompt us to raise the calibre of our regulatory systems. Rather than being an out-dated hindrance, these reformed systems will uplift and support development practices that are likely to create truly beneficial products. Rather than being perceived as sluggish bureaucratic swamps, these systems will be widely appreciated for the calibre of the advice provided, and the responsiveness of the personnel who provide the advice.
Such improvements will involve the overcoming of what is, at present, all too often a dysfunctional lack of trust between government departments (as in Washington DC) and the technology companies creating remarkable new products (as in Silicon Valley). These improvements will require better regulators, better politicians, and better relations between these two sets of people.
As just mentioned, better regulations require better regulators. As a matter of priority, we need to take steps so that highly talented people are attracted into the roles of regulator – people with great skills and experience in both technical and legal matters.
Decrying what he observes as a “dangerous… historic divide between Washington and Silicon Valley”, distinguished security expert Bruce Schneier offers the following advice:
We need technologists to get involved in policy, and we need policy-makers to get involved in technology. We need people who are experts in making both technology and technological policy. We need technologists on congressional staffs, inside federal agencies, working for NGOs, and as part of the press. We need to create a viable career path for public-interest technologists, much as there already is one for public-interest attorneys. We need courses, and degree programs in colleges, for people interested in careers in public-interest technology. We need fellowships in organizations that need these people. We need technology companies to offer sabbaticals for technologists wanting to go down this path. We need an entire ecosystem that supports people bridging the gap between technology and law. We need a viable career path that ensures that even though people in this field won’t make as much as they would in a high-tech start-up, they will have viable careers.
In short, we need people working close to politicians – their advisors and staff members – to be more skilled in both the opportunities and risks of regulating technology.
The central role of politics
You may notice a theme emerging:
- Previous chapter: The Singularity Principles anticipate better monitoring of what is happening worldwide. But the data collected by that monitoring process could be misused by central authorities. To prevent such misuse, and to build public support for this monitoring, we need to find ways to raise the trustworthiness of the central authorities, and to improve the support environment around these authorities.
- Present chapter: The Singularity Principles anticipate better regulations, designed and operated by a group of regulators with higher abilities than many who fill these roles at present. But people with that mix of skills are likely to be disinterested in working alongside incompetent central authorities. They will run a mile from the stench of political machinations. Therefore, we need to find ways to raise the competence – and character – of people working at the heart of government.
That’s a tall order. But I see no real alternative. Happily, as I’ll explore in the pages ahead, I see ways in which these improvements can proceed – step by step.
It’s as I’ve said before and will doubtless say again: The journey to a healthier society inevitably involves politics.
That’s a message many technologists and entrepreneurs are unwilling to hear. They would prefer to ignore politics. They wish, instead, to keep their focus on creating remarkable new technology or on building vibrant new business. Politics is messy and ugly, they say. It’s raucous and uncouth. It’s unproductive. Some would even say (though I disagree) that politics is unnecessary.
But putting our heads in the sand about politics is a gamble fraught with danger. Looking the other way won’t prevent our necks from being severed when the axe falls.
On their present trajectory, technology and business are arguably making politics worse, rather than better. Together, without intending it, they are fuelling increasing dysfunction within politics. In such a setting, technological innovations and aggressive business corporations might end up harming humanity much more than they help us.
Numerous examples could be given of flawed politics leading to strings of bad outcomes. These examples would feature perverse economic incentives, vested interests that hold disproportionate power, self-perpetuating industrial complexes, spiralling arms races, regulatory institutions that are caught in lethargy and inertia, and much more. These outcomes, exacerbated by ever-more powerful technology put to sinister use, threaten in turn a hurricane of adverse consequences. Accordingly, fixing politics is one of the central challenges of our time.
However, in the same way that naïve use of technology can make politics worse, wise use of technology can make politics better.
Three types of improvement are possible:
- Individual politicians can become more responsive and more knowledgeable regarding the opportunities and risks posed by fast-changing technology
- New political parties (or alliances) can emerge, with the opportunities and risks of technology being central issues for these parties or alliances, rather than matters of occasional, peripheral concern
- The entire arena of political debate can be reinvigorated: twenty-first century technology can facilitate political debate that is better informed, more engaged, more productive, and genuinely beneficial, via (in the words of Thomas Malone from MIT) “the surprising power of people and computers thinking together”.
In this envisioned possible new politics of the near future, decisions can take place informed by the best insight of the population as a whole, rather than being subverted by partisan vested interests. Viewpoints and information that deserve more attention will rise to the top of political discussion, untarnished, rather than being pushed aside or deviously distorted by those who find them inconvenient. Political discourse will become authentic, rather than contrived. Our politics will become animated by the spirit of constructive curiosity and open collaboration.
Some critics may view that vision as being a fantasy. However, here’s how it could gradually come into reality.
Here’s a short statement from the Gettysburg Address made in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, which has become a short-hand summary of the ideals of democracy:
Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Since 1863, society has become considerably more complicated, and governments have taken on additional new responsibilities. In parallel, social institutions have evolved in many ways, and technology has provided numerous new tools that can assist the task of governance. Despite these changes, Lincoln’s aspirational statement remains valid. However, these changes mean that the statement deserves to be extended.
Various adaptations of the original statement have been suggested. Some of these adaptations recommend a reduction in the powers of politicians:
As little government as possible
Or a variant:
Politicians with as little power as possible
Such variants are preoccupied with limiting the harm that politicians can do, rather than supporting politicians in the good work they can also do.
Sadly, if politicians have less power, it will allow other groupings to exert themselves more forcefully in society. In the absence of an effective government, people throughout society will be vulnerable to the abuse of power by large corporations, crime syndicates, mafia-style gangs, guerrilla networks, and external armies from neighbouring states.
Instead, here’s a better revision of Lincoln’s statement:
Government of the people, resources, institutions, and technology,
by the people, institutions, and technology,
for the people, and for consciousness in general.”
In this form, the statement summarises a notion I call “superdemocracy”.
Superdemocracy will feature better use of both institutions and technology to raise the calibre of politics. It will provide the environment in which the general public can trust their politicians more fully than at present.
Technology improving politics
To give more details, here are ten ways to take advantage of new technology, including tools with elements of AI, to support new political mechanisms and institutions:
- Real-time fact checking, which could highlight almost immediately whether there is evidence to contradict (or verify) a claim being made by a politician or their supporters
- Real-time logic checking, that could highlight any invalid jumps in reasoning – or conversely, confirm the soundness of an argument
- Real-time source checking, to verify whether a quotation, image, or video extract may have been altered before being presented, changing its meaning or any implications arising
- Reputation systems, that keep track of the reliability of people’s past contributions to particular topics
- The creative generation of new proposals, that can combine key elements from previous suggestions in ways that address earlier concerns
- Simulations, in huge computational models, of potential consequences of envisioned legislative changes, to help the identification and evaluation, ahead of time, of possible real-world risks and benefits of these changes
- Improved electoral systems, involving elements of proportional representation as well as ranked preference votes, to avoid the present situation in which far too many people feel that their votes will be essentially meaningless, or that they ought to cast a tactical vote for a candidate different from their actual first preference
- Liquid voting, in which citizens can temporarily assign their voting rights in specified topic areas to people they trust to vote on their behalf regarding these topics
- Facilitated citizens’ assemblies, that act in similar ways to jury trials, with representative groups of citizens being selected at random, and supported in a task to evaluate possible solutions to given social issues, ahead of the conclusions of these assemblies being forwarded to society as a whole for wider consideration
- A “House of AI” revising chamber of government, that applies AI reasoning to provide feedback on proposed legislation, as well as offering possible revisions to that legislation.
Transcending party politics
Although temptations to minimise politics itself should be resisted, there are strong arguments to minimise party politics. It’s the partisan aspects of politics that cause most problems, and which need to be diminished.
Political parties made sense in previous times, but nowadays are more of an impediment than an aid to effective government. Political parties multiply mistrust: people in different parties profoundly mistrust each other.
In the past, political parties provided the support for people interested in becoming involved in politics, including training, networks of potential connections, financial assistance, and help with the key task of becoming elected. In turn, politicians were expected to show loyalty to their parties, such as:
- Voting for policies chosen by party leaders, regardless of their own personal assessments of these policies
- Joining with party colleagues to pour scorn on opposing parties.
It’s true that thoughtful disagreement is a necessary part of life, especially when circumstances are complex. To help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of different ideas, groups of people can usefully take on the task of debate, exploring and advocating different positions. Such disagreement features regularly in science, and science is the better for it. It’s the same with politics. However, party politics damages the nature of these debates:
- Rather than focusing on which policy is best, the debate often becomes, in effect, which party is best – with attention drawn to purported errors made in the past by various parties, even if these errors have little direct relevance to the current policy debate
- Disagreements are often magnified, for theatrical purposes, rather than compromises being sought
- Even when politicians are aware of particular pluses or minuses of a given policy, they often keep silent about these points, since they would run counter to their party’s official position
- When politicians perceive that a point someone is making is damaging to their cause, they often attempt to suppress that voice, or to misrepresent or ridicule it, or to damage the reputation of the people involved – rather than engaging honestly with the substance of the point.
When circumstances are particularly complex, with fast-changing possibilities – as in the present day, with the consequences of NBIC technologies becoming ever more prominent – it’s especially important to rescue political dialogue from the rancour and distortions of partisanship. The drawbacks of entrenched partisan politics may have been a tolerable weakness in past decades, but are nowadays becoming ever more perilous. It’s time, therefore, for the dominance of parties to recede.
Happily, many of the forms of support for prospective politicians, which used to be available only from political parties, are nowadays available from non-party sources, including online networks, and non-partisan think tanks.
In this vision, there will still be a role for political parties to fulfil, but these parties will be more fluid than before. It will become much more common for:
- People who are associated with one party, to nonetheless support a different party on one or more specific policy areas
- People to move between parties
- New parties to form
- Parties to split and merge, creating new groupings
- Governments to include people from multiple different parties.
The prospects for political progress
Countries around the word vary in the extent to which they are already entering the era of post-partisan politics. Factors which aid that kind of politics include:
- Voting systems, such as proportional representation, that make it easier for new parties to enter parliament, rather than being squeezed out by electors’ fears that any votes for new parties will be “wasted”
- A tradition of parties forming coalitions, with a clear understanding of the best practice in such relationships
- A tradition of coalitions working in partnership with individuals from other parties that remain formally outside the coalition
- Public dissatisfaction with any media that is highly partisan
- A growing general recognition of the drawbacks of “groupthink” – of which partisan politics is an evident troubling example
- A reduction in the importance of large financial funding for political parties – due to limits being imposed on political expenditure, and due to the rise of less expensive ways for politicians to spread their messages.
In countries like the US and the UK with a particularly strong tradition of unpleasant partisan politics, including the dominance of first-past-the-post elections, the following developments should provide extra pressure to overcome existing inertia and to experiment with post-partisan politics:
- Growing comfort level with the kinds of technological assistance that support more sophisticated voting methods
- Evident successes of post-partisan politics in other countries
- Evident successes of post-partisan politics at local, state, or regional levels
- Evident successes of citizens’ assemblies, convened to address tough issues, but with their members (hopefully) able to transcend the blinkers of their initial political affiliations as the assemblies proceed.
All these initiatives will progress more smoothly if suitable education is available for students of all ages. That’s the subject of the next chapter.
Note: the following video, produced in conjunction with my 2018 book Transcending politics, provides an illustration of the possibilities for improving politics.