Technology and Tyranny

Sep 06, 2018

Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool in the hands of authoritarian governments. Could it destroy democracy?

Why Technology Favors Tyranny By Emily Buder
(adapted from Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.)

Technology undoubtedly has an impact on every area of life. New technologies develop and change with such a bewildering pace that be the time we finish asking “But should we?” the innovators have already moved on to the Next Big Thing.

During and following the 2016 election cycle, there was a great deal of discussion about technological intervention in a democratic election. From hacked servers to fake news, concerns have grown about just how technology changes the playing field.

In an article in the Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari (via Emily Blunt) explores this subject briefly, making the case that technological advancements, and AI in particular, tend to favor dictatorship over democracy. It may, he suggests, eventually destroy democracy altogether.

Many of Harari’s concerns are well worth considering, though his worldview causes him to assess the threat differently. Let’s take a look at his assumptions first; then, with those in view, we’ll go through his arguments.

Materialism and Artificial Intelligence

There is an age-old debate over whether machines can eventually replicate human intelligence. That is tangentially related to this discussion; part of the article goes into the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, which is a good subject for a future post.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, it is the human creature that is in focus:

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires.

Note the implication here. Biotechnology provides a window into our emotions, thoughts, and choices, because (in Harari’s worldview) our emotions, thoughts, and choices arise from our biology. But if that’s the case, then (given sufficient technological advancement) it’s possible for technology to modify our biology, and therefore our emotions, thoughts, and choices.

It’s certainly true that our surroundings (and, hence, technology) can impact our “inner lives.” We can measure the impact of color on our emotions, for example. And marketers make careers out of studying the best ways to influence a consumer’s choices. But the Bible tells us that we are more than flesh and blood: we are created in the image of God, and we have an immortal spirit.

There is debate about how exactly to apply that truth, but one thing it does mean is that there are limits to the demands of our biology. Humans have the capacity to rise above those impulses. For example, nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance, creating an all-too-real biological need for the smoker. But the biological impulses behind that addiction (and others like it) can be overcome.

Biotechnology will be able to manipulate us with cunning physical temptations and pleasures, and this is not a threat to take lightly! But we can take comfort in the fact that it cannot subvert our spirits. Further, Christ has promised us as Christians no more temptation than we - by His grace - can bear. He will provide with the temptation a way of escape. So while we must think carefully about the moral applications of biotechnology, we need not be quite as fearful as the materialist about its potential.

Artificial Intelligence and Dictatorship

This brings us to the main part of the article I wanted to address. Harari (via Blunt) writes:

A facade of free choice and free voting may remain in place in some countries, even as the public exerts less and less actual control. To be sure, attempts to manipulate voters’ feelings are not new. But once somebody (whether in San Francisco or Beijing or Moscow) gains the technological ability to manipulate the human heart—reliably, cheaply, and at scale—democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.

Of course, the barrier to controlling the human heart reliably, cheaply, and at scale is (as discussed above) that biology is only part of the puzzle. However, even manipulating the human heart semi-reliably is enough to transform a democracy into “an emotional puppet show.” This was the fatal flaw of democracy, recognized both in ancient times and when the United States was founded.

John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The only way democracy works is with a stable, moral, religious populace. When the United States was founded, that was the case; as that demographic has declined in influence, democracy becomes increasingly vulnerable to its arch-nemesis. The demagogue, a charismatic leader who uses emotions to appeal to baser instincts of anger and envy, is easily able to sway those without a solid foundation for their values.

We’ve seen a lot of this in modern politics, from both sides of the party line. But it’s not the result of new technology: demagogues are as ancient as the idea of democracy itself. Rather, it’s the result of a people who have lost their moral foundation. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, and what was right yesterday is wrong today, then there is no higher standard with which to resist the lure of an exciting, charismatic personality.

So Harari is correct that there is danger here; however, he’s wrong to point to the technology as the source of the threat. The Athenians had never dreamt of computers, let alone artificial intelligence; yet they were prone to fall prey to demagoguery just the same. We ought to be aware that technology represents another tool in the demagogue’s arsenal, and study how it is used, so that we do not fall prey to it; but the surest defense against demagoguery is a strong moral framework, built from obedience to the Word of God.

Cyber-demagoguery isn’t the only way Harari forecasts technological innovations to undermine democracy:

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. Historically, autocracies have faced crippling handicaps in regard to innovation and economic growth. In the late 20th century, democracies usually outperformed dictatorships, because they were far better at processing information. We tend to think about the conflict between democracy and dictatorship as a conflict between two different ethical systems, but it is actually a conflict between two different data-processing systems. Democracy distributes the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given 20th-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. Nobody had the ability to process all available information fast enough and make the right decisions. This is one reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

Harari’s narrow focus on the 20th century undermines his argument a bit here. I think he’s basically correct regarding the differences between America and the Soviet Union. However, as he noted earlier, democracy has been a historical anomaly. There have been many great centralized empires through the ages, and all of them relied heavily on distributing power and data to regional (and smaller) sub-authorities. Conversely, there have been centralized democracies - though on a small scale. Democracy simply gets out of hand when you have a million citizens attempting to make decisions at once.

That’s why even in America, power isn’t truly distributed in a “democratic” fashion. We don’t go out and vote individually on every issue. Rather, we elect a hierarchy of officials. There are some checks and balances to the American system, designed to prevent too much power from being gathered in one place; but those checks and balances don’t improve “data-processing” - arguably the opposite, as they make it more difficult for things to get done.

Thus the faults of the Soviet Union aren’t necessarily inherent to an autocratic government. Monarchies and empires have accomplished a lot, within the limits of their technology, by distributing power. The Roman Empire is a great example of this, developing a large bureaucracy to manage an area fully half the size of the United States. Without the instant communication offered by the telegraph and eventually the telephone, the Empire did eventually reach the limits of its time and was forced to split in two. But it’s not clear how “democracy” would have solved that problem.

So Harari conflates “democracy” with distribution of power and information. But he recognizes that distribution as a good thing, and not just because of the efficiency benefits. The next paragraph outlines one of the most interesting moral dilemmas in the article:

However, artificial intelligence may soon swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. In fact, it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze. If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database, you’ll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people. An authoritarian government that orders all its citizens to have their DNA sequenced and to share their medical data with some central authority would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data are strictly private.

It’s not hard to see the temptation here. Authoritarian governments of the past have abused their peoples’ rights for the sake of medical advancement - Nazi Germany went so far as to conduct horrific experiments on their prisoners and undesirables. “The greater good” is a powerful enemy of individual rights.

This, again, isn’t a threat unique to authoritarian governments: democratic governments are also vulnerable to the “tyranny of the majority.” Fundamentally, the only protection against this kind of abuse is a strong (and enforced) view of individual rights. The checks and balances between the Senate and House, and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches are designed to protect those individual rights as enshrined in the Constitution. Each branch is supposed to stop the other from abusing those rights.

But without effective protection for those individual rights, nothing - not a dictatorship, not a republic, not even a democracy - can withstand the weight of “the greater good.”

So let’s take a step back and re-evaluate. Artificial intelligence offers to improve the relative performance of strongly centralized governments versus distributed governments. And its potential seems to be greater for countries willing to ignore the rights of their citizens.

With these clarifications, it’s clear that the danger Harari sees is no mere phantom. We’re already seeing its reality in places like China, where massive surveillance programs are leveraging these new technologies.

But it is not “democracy” that is at risk. It is something more fundamental: the individual rights that are endowed by our Creator and protected by our Constitution. And that means that the solution must be to restore the worldview that recognizes that Creator as the transcendental source of those rights.