Artificial intelligence is indeed a threat to democracy

Says neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, but not in quite the way historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks:

Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues at The Atlantic that artificial intelligence may subvert democracy by concentrating power in a small elite:

“The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.”

There is indeed an association between democracies and liberty but the arrow of causation may travel in a different direction than Harari assumes. While democracy has coincided with political liberty in the West over the past century or two, it is indisputable that, historically, tyranny has also emerged from democratic institutions.


Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) was leader of the first communist state, the Soviet Union

Totalitarianism seems to need the soil of democracy soil to germinate. Bolshevism arose from the democratic Kerensky government and Nazism arose from the democratic Weimar Republic. Mao’s tyranny emerged from Sun Yat-sen’s republican China. It seems unlikely that Lenin, Hitler, or Mao would have arisen had the Czar, the Kaiser, or the Emperor remained in power. Under traditional autocrats, the fate of cunning totalitarian demons was a rope, not a podium. The Czar, after all, hanged Lenin’s brother. But Kerensky simply folded before Lenin.

Thus Harari seems to misunderstand the relationship between democracy, liberty, and tyranny. Tyranny—at least, the totalitarian form of it—is not the opposite of democracy. Tyranny is the scion of democracy—democracy’s offspring, not its antithesis. The important question, yet to be satisfactorily answered, is this: Is tyranny democracy’s bastard or its true heir? To what extent is tyranny the inevitable spawn of democracy? Plato may have understood better: He proposed that democracy led quite naturally and inevitably to tyranny. We moderns seem blissfully unaware of the natural, and seemingly inevitable, fate of republics.

It is with Plato’s warning in mind that we should approach Harari’s main point—that technology in general, and artificial intelligence in particular—lets loose the hounds of tyranny. That may not be because technology subverts democracy but because technology empowers democracy. More.

Reality check: “Democracy” can mean a complex tripartite system of government or a Twitter mob. It’s the latter that is comparatively new.

See also: Also at Mind Matters Today:

“Artificial” Artificial Intelligence What happens when AI needs a human I? Artificial intelligence often fails at crucial points. It must then be supplemented by human intelligence. Many software systems that look to their users like pure advanced artificial intelligence hide a lot of human effort behind a technological mask.

Will killer drones make it easier to kill? That depends on who the pilots are. Heather Zeiger tells us that traditional aerial combat pilots tend to think the same way when piloting drones from an office but it may be a different story when cell phone addicts, who tend to lack empathy, are recruited.

Can machines really learn? Michael Egnor: A parable of a book that learned Machine learning is a powerful and important tool that is likely to be of great value (and perhaps great risk) to man. Machines can be designed to change with time, but it is man, and only man, who learns.

Silicon Valley grew old before it grew up By April of this year, 100 employees were complaining about the Google groupthink Quip making the rounds: Would you trust a self-driving car from Google? Answer: Sure, if I needed a car that decided for me where I should go and then just drove me there.