03 October 2017

Scientific American: “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?”

Let us suppose there was a super-intelligent machine with godlike knowledge and superhuman abilities: would we follow its instructions? This seems possible. But if we did that, then the warnings expressed by Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and others would have become true: computers would have taken control of the world. We must be clear that a super-intelligence could also make mistakes, lie, pursue selfish interests or be manipulated. Above all, it could not be compared with the distributed, collective intelligence of the entire population.

The idea of replacing the thinking of all citizens by a computer cluster would be absurd, because that would dramatically lower the diversity and quality of the solutions achievable. It is already clear that the problems of the world have not decreased despite the recent flood of data and the use of personalized information—on the contrary!

In a rapidly changing world a super-intelligence can never make perfect decisions (see Fig. 1): systemic complexity is increasing faster than data volumes, which are growing faster than the ability to process them, and data transfer rates are limited. This results in disregarding local knowledge and facts, which are important to reach good solutions. Distributed, local control methods are often superior to centralized approaches, especially in complex systems whose behaviors are highly variable, hardly predictable and not capable of real-time optimization. This is already true for traffic control in cities, but even more so for the social and economic systems of our highly networked, globalized world.

Dirk Helbing et al.

Interesting perspective on the ongoing debate about AI and its consequences on human society. The vision of a world carefully guided by a super-intelligence vaguely reminds me of Asimov’s Robot series – but at least his positronic brains had a clear set of hardcoded ethical guidelines. The article above makes a compelling counterpoint to this vision of increasingly offloading decisions to AI: however benevolent, ceding control to an artificial intelligence would mean nothing less than to erode the idea of democracy and self-determination, to roll back the social advancements of the enlightenment and return to a form of digital despotism and conformism.

Digital growth

Figure 1: Digital growth. Source: Dirk Helbing

Thanks to Big Data, we can now take better, evidence-based decisions. However, the principle of top-down control increasingly fails, since the complexity of society grows in an explosive way as we go on networking our world. Distributed control approaches will become ever more important. Only by means of collective intelligence will it be possible to find appropriate solutions to the complexity challenges of our world.

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