AI and the welfare state

Commentary on a thought-provoking recent piece in Foreign Policy which discusses the impact of AI on the delivery of government services.

Continuing on the theme of AI and threats to humanity and democracy, Foreign Policy magazine has a thought-provoking piece on Denmark's use of artificial intelligence to deliver benefits to its citizens. There are a couple of interesting points here. First is, as always, the rapid advance of this technology into all areas. AI has moved into the realm of governance and the citizen's relationship to the state, and the implications are profound.

As discussed in my comments on Yuval Noah Harari's piece on technology and tyranny, these rapidly developing technologies have broad and deep ramifications for nearly all aspects of human societies - our structures of knowledge and belief, economy and (in)equality, authority and the administration of justice, and more. The adoption of AI and ML technologies is rapidly outpacing our understanding of the social, political, and economic implications, and there is reason to be concerned that many of the big problems of tomorrow will involve outcomes of the technology being developed today.

The FP piece considers the Danish government's use of AI to manage social benefits. This idea is an obvious application of the technology to solving social problems (waste, fraud, abuse), but the article argues that this problem-solving potential is perhaps outweighed by less obvious implied threats to democracy:

Such improvements in governance are undeniably enticing. What should concern us, however, is that the means of achieving them are not liberal. There are now growing indications that the West is slouching toward rule by algorithm—a brave new world in which vast fields of human life will be governed by digital code both invisible and unintelligible to human beings, with significant political power placed beyond individual resistance and legal challenge. Liberal democracies are already initiating this quiet, technologically enabled revolution, even as it undermines their own social foundation.

After many years of embracing the digital revolution with little consideration for the downsides of such sweeping change to our technical and social systems, awareness is finally growing of the possible (and actual) pitfalls of such technology (witness, for example, the growing backlash against social media, in part due to its contribution to undermining our representative democracy). The issue of election interference demostrates that the threats posed by technology are not merely hypothetical, but very real, and are actively shaping our society - it is well documented that Russian efforts reached tens of millions of Americans in the 2016 election. 

FP's article on Danish social benefits policy suggests that technology does not only pose threats by its enabling of malign foreign actors, but that it might exacerbate the threats posed by governments against their own citizens:

And yet the perils of such programs are less understood and discussed than the benefits. Part of the reason may be that the West’s embrace of public-service algorithms are byproducts of lofty and genuinely beneficial initiatives aimed at better governance. But these externalities are also beneficial for those in power in creating a parallel form of governing alongside more familiar tools of legislation and policy-setting. And the opacity of the algorithms’ power means that it isn’t easy to determine when algorithmic governance stops serving the common good and instead becomes the servant of the powers that be. This will inevitably take a toll on privacy, family life, and free speech, as individuals will be unsure when their personal actions may come under the radar of the government.

That this discussion contains elements of a dystopian science-fiction fantasy is not a reason to discount such technological dangers. A much more vigorous ongoing debate is needed about the ways in which technology is changing, and will change, our societies. In my opinion, we should devote just as much attention to understanding the issues posed by the adoption of technology as we do to developing that technology. At the moment, the technical efforts far outweigh the efforts at understanding how best to integrate technology into society. The systems perspective is an important part of this discussion. It is not enough to focus narrowly on the immediate benefits of technology - we most look holistically at our understanding of the role of technology, what we hope to achieve with it (in terms of ultimate human goals). This discussion is still in its early stages but is rapidly growing in importance, and it is encouraging to see awareness growing around these issues.