Artificial intelligence and democracy

4. Artificial intelligence and democracy

"I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

—Quote from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

An astronaut floats in the vast nothingness of space. Only the thin walls of his maintenance pod protect him from a certain and cold death in space. His survival depends on him being able to convince HAL, the board computer of his ship, to led him back on board.

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

Dave: What's the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.

HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Script by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

For better or worse, the image of the psychotic computer HAL threatening to kill the very humans he was tasked with supporting in order to achieve what he has calculated to be better chances of achieving their shared mission has shaped the popular representation of artificial intelligence ever since. Be it Marvin, the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-shaped T-800 in James Cameron's Terminator movies, or Battlestar Galactica's Cylons, HAL's descendants share his strained relationship with humanity. No wonder, we are used to thinking about artificial intelligence as a threat or a source of uncontrollable danger.

The existential doubts of Blade Runner Rick Deckard, the attempts at trying to understand humans by Star Trek's Lieutenant Commander Data, and the search for love and connection of two lost humanoid robots in Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. provide a different but just as warped picture of AI. Here, we do not necessarily encounter a threat in AI but the search of supposedly soulless machines for a meaning to life. Ultimately in encountering these AIs the lines between artificial and human intelligence and life begin to blur. We find us looking into a silicon mirror.

AI either as threat of a cognitively and physically superior entity to us humans, or as a silicon-based life-form striving to similar status of human intelligence and meaning. These tropes not only shape popular culture but also our expectations of AI's effect on society. Public luminaries like Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates warn us from the dangers of AI, while futurists promise an end to the tyranny of our decaying flesh by our minds melding with machines. This makes for stimulating reading and is the stuff of countless think-pieces.

While it is easy to shrug at these concerns as overexcited science fiction, artificial intelligence is a vibrant field of academic research and commercial enterprise. We encounter AIs daily, be it in the voice assistants in our homes and phones, through automation in our workplace, or as the drivers of policing or credit decisions. AI is a largely invisible feature of our daily lives with clear consequences for us as citizens and consumers. But these consequences are more difficult to interrogate than watching the T-800 violently tear through a city. Still, examining the workings and real-world consequences of actually existing artificial intelligence is important. This is what we will do in this chapter. In our discussion, we focus on the impact of AI on democracy. To do so, we first start with a discussion of what artificial intellence is and is not.