Why Technology Favors Tyranny

from The Atlantic

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

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.

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.

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. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

More here.

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7 Responses to Why Technology Favors Tyranny

  1. Alexander Fialkowsky September 14, 2018 at 12:52 pm #

    Our global expansion of technology and intelligence has allowed us to thrive in so many areas of human life, including medicine, communication, and even business. Companies have artificial intelligence that can analyze and predict trends in stocks. There are also robotic nurses in countries such as Japan to help patients in quarantine, as well as cheer up young patients. All of this advancement has led us to the lives we have now. However, if we continue to progress, will the outcome always be favorable? The answer is no. Technology is at a critical point right now where it the most advanced pieces of tech have almost human-like capabilities. There are artificial intelligence robots who can project and sense human emotion. Frankly, I have seen too many movies to ever support such technology. It is supposed to be a tool that people can use to help benefit their lives, not take over their lives. And if we continue down this path that is what it may come to. In the article, the author, Harari, talks about a “Useless Class” that will arise if automation is not regulated. People with jobs such as food service, retail, transportation, manufacturing and many more could all be replaced with automated workers. If you think about it, these labor-intensive jobs make up a large population of the world, and even more so, the middle and lower classes. If this useless class does come about, there would be mass poverty and outrage. People would turn to their governments for aid such as Unemployment and Healthcare. By reaching their hand out for these services, if the government chooses to comply, they will have even more control over these groups. There would be likely not many jobs for these people to choose from for long periods, which would mean that they would have to rely on the government’s aid that much more. The point I think Harari is trying to make is that with such a large portion of the population under government aid, the government could become more tyrannical and ignore the voices of the people because they in a sense directly control their income and resources. So the people would not object so that they can avoid biting the hand that feeds them. If this does become the case, there is not much that can stop it, so we must take necessary precautions now. Including regulatory measures on artificial intelligence and automated workers. As well as protection of human workers from replacement. Technology is a powerful tool, as long as the power is used correctly, if not, we could destroy ourselves as easily as pushing a button.

  2. Yash Wagle September 14, 2018 at 7:00 pm #

    As level of technology is rapidly advancing it brings about some beneficial change, yet what is perhaps is more concerning is the way technology is beginning to interfere with people’s livelihood in countless aspects. In the Atlantic article in notes the depths to which these advancement of technology could concentrate power towards a small elite possessing power over the majority. The article brings up several points about how different technologies may soon rule the future.
    One of the biggest topics in the article brings up the power of artificial intelligence (AI) or robots. Technology for a long time has been disrupting the job market by taking manual jobs such as manufacturing. Yet with the advance of AI it is not only manual skilled jobs that would be at risk, but also cognitive skilled jobs that would be at risk. AI has proven itself the ability to rapidly advance and develop its own thinking. At the moment human cognitive skill may surpass those of AI, but human and AI are not competing, in fact they are cooperating in that new jobs demand humans to work alongside with AI. But as AI is constantly improving even these jobs would be at risk. The article gave an example of Google’s AlphaZero program playing chess against a Stockfish 8 programs. These two computers possess the ability to play chess higher than that of any human. Interestingly enough, AlphaZero the winner of the chess championship learned chess by itself without the help of any human. Even more amazing is that the program learned the game of chess in a period of hours playing against itself. Even more amazing is that the program made moves in such way that even humans would at first find them meaningless. This chess match in shows the power of AI and how it possess the ability beyond that of any human, this makes the fear of AI taking over human jobs an alarming possibility. AI has the possibility to advance in the fields of transportation, as well as the ability to take over the field of medicine. What makes AI so special is that it does all this work with precision making occupations from truck drivers to doctors may soon be no longer done by humans. What will end up happening is that the lack of human jobs would create a “useless class” class of people would fail to meet the requirements compared to their AI counterpart.
    Yet what is even more frightening than lack of jobs is threat technology may be to democracy. Democracy may be seen as a better political system than dictatorship because democracy gives the people the power to make decisions for themselves based on a wide variety of information. Dictatorship on the other hand makes decisions for people based on a much smaller amount of information and only through one leader. Yet because AI has the ability to achieve a wide amount of information and make a decision with precision. AI may actually influence people into making their political decisions for them as people become more and more reliant on the technology. Yet, even this AI can be used by the small elite to influence their decisions. All in all, technology possess a great benefit and danger in the future, the more aware we are of that the better.

  3. Henry Steck October 26, 2018 at 5:50 pm #

    I like how author Yuval Noah Harari first addresses the special time we live in. In the grand scheme of things, our democracy is a total anomaly. For the vast majority of world history, we were stuck in autocracy. In a time when we complain about how to develop our, perhaps unparalleled, freedom further, world history is sometimes cast aside and forgotten.

    Harari also touches on the propaganda posters of past decades. For some, these posters may at first seem like symbols of autocracy, but Harari addresses the nuanced loss of no longer seeing the “I want you for the army” type artwork of the past. Unless we are in North Korea, we do not see these illustrations anymore. This was a point the columnist touched on for a split second, but it really spoke to me: “He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners and steelworkers in heroic poses—and saw himself there: ‘I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!’” In the US today I guess you could argue that Armed Forces recruiting still develops these types of images, but the media is now seemingly a constant advertisement. These encouraging images of heroism in propaganda from the past are not what we see. Harari brilliantly points out that in a world so focused on technology, a world saturated with TED talks about machine learning and blockchain, the “average joe” is forgotten.

    The columnist is certainly not advocating for halting these developments, as there are likely benefits that AI and other such technological advances could bring to humankind. However, perhaps these developments should be framed in a different way. We need to continue to focus on the importance of people.

    Harari points out chess, and I actually watch chess a lot. My favorite player is probably Morozevich. He plays an incredible French Defense, one of my favorite opening lines to play. I have seen robots play the French too, and it is not the same. I will be frank: who would want to watch two robots play chess? To me, that would be awfully boring. We get that robots rule supreme in chess… We get it. Why don’t we focus on two humans playing? Imaginative software is practical, but phasing out some human tasks, such as chess, seems wrong to me. Would watching robots play basketball be as entertaining as the emotion filled environment of a game of college hoops?

  4. Jordan H November 6, 2018 at 9:18 pm #

    Artificial intelligence is without a doubt the technology of the future, with scientists and researchers only scratching the surface of its capabilities. Just like with any new technology, it will be taken advantage of at the expense of those who do not necessarily understand it. The author mentions how autonomous bots influenced public opinion in the 2016 presidential election, while this is true a deeper issue is ultimately responsible. Not all AI is dangerous or being misused, the potential advancements in the medical field is truly groundbreaking. Disease assessment and the overall approach to healthcare would be revolutionized by AI being able to update and inform almost instantly. I am personally intrigued by the limitless possibilities of how AI could change everyday life.

    However on the flip side of that point, AI has been difficult to determine when and if it could begin to refuse to obey orders. If developed enough, the possibility arises that the technology could lose it’s obedience and begin to function on its own. Now to me that sounds like something out of a movie, but I have seen videos of robots developed by Microsoft that could carry an intelligent conversation with a human. Even though the potential of having that advanced technology is still years into the future, I believe that the conversation needs to start now on how and when this technology can be utilized. The author also comments on the threat to liberal democracy brought about by AI, and to me that may be the most frightening scenario.

    Our country was founded on liberal democracy, so for it to be threatened by something like AI technology is something that I think needs to be addressed. The internet is already being restricted by governments all across the world, but with AI being able to monitor your online activity. Not only would you be monitored, but the possibility exists that your activity could be controlled as well leading to a decline in liberal democracy. The best way to describe this is with the author’s own words, Digital Dictatorships. If the sound of that doesn’t frighten you, it should. Democracy is the backbone of this country and regardless of what political party you align with it is imperative that our democracy be preserved.

  5. John L. November 9, 2018 at 10:37 am #

    As consumers trade privacy and liberty for convenience and safety AI will be used to install authoritarian regimes around the globe. The fast pace that AI learns and regurgitates information is astounding. It certainly has more capacity than the average human brain. I personally believe that there will be too much social outcry before AI becomes used on a macro scale of controlling people’s lives from a governmental level. There was much public outcry when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA spying on U.S. citizens. However, governments could persuade citizens to give up more of their personal data in exchange for the common good. The example used in the article talked about citizens giving up their DNA in exchange for sweeping medical advances performed by the government.
    The goal of ensuring that democracy remains alive in our data driven world is to find ways to make the distribution of data more efficient than centralized data processing. Blockchain could be an interesting start, where it is heralded as a decentralized and untraceable currency free from the regulation of the world’s central banks. Blockchain can be a good move economically. The other step that can be used to prevent authoritarian regimes from rising is to figure out a way to regulate data. Governments should regulate how much data any corporate body or government body can hold at one time, what they can do with that data, and also who they can share that data with. Information can be regulated as seen with the pass of the HIPPA laws. It is important that we ensure democracy in our societies by not allowing big data to be found in the hand of the few elite.

  6. Marc B April 8, 2020 at 3:06 pm #

    Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom, but it also consists of a set of practices and procedures that have taken a very long time to develop. Democracy is the institutionalization of freedom. For this reason, it is possible to identify the fundamentals of constitutional government that any society must possess to be properly called democratic. For Aristotle, the underlying principle of democracy is freedom, since only in a democracy the citizens can have a share in freedom. In essence, he argues that this is what every democracy should make its aim. A democratic society must incorporate certain values as democracy is more than a set of constitutional rules and procedures that determine how a government functions.
    Abraham Lincoln summed up democracy well in saying it is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Even in saturated democracies, an increasing number of voters are supporting populist and authoritarian alternatives to liberal democracy. With today’s disruptive technologies are one reason why people are becoming disillusioned with a political and economic system that used to promise ever-growing prosperity and individual empowerment. Rapid advances in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) are making ordinary people feel increasingly not important. The most crucial argument is that new technologies destroy the comparative advantage of democracy over dictatorship. The important difference between the two, it asserts, is not between their ethics but between their data processing models. Centralized data and decision making used to be a weakness; increasingly it is a strength.

  7. Yifeng Liu April 9, 2020 at 2:10 pm #

    The idea that technology can be a threat to democracy, and hence favor tyranny, may appear far-fetched, especially when one considers how it as created platforms where people from different parts of the world interact freely. The best example for this is over the internet, where there are numerous social media platforms that encourage free interactions between people from different parts of the world. Generally, social media platforms are the epitome of freeness, and hence promoting democracy since, apart from a few countries where the use of these sites is highly restrained or policed, a look at the use of social media in most other nations are largely open and encourages a lot of free engagement. However, from the perspective of the article, the freeness or democracy that such platforms give is not entirely real, but rather just a false sense.

    This is because, when there are a few such platforms owned and managed by a few corporations or entity in the worldwide, these entities get a lot of personal data and information about the users of these platforms. This means that, while the users are feeling free while interacting and engaging with others on the platforms, a few entities are monitoring their moves remotely through surveillance programs, and it would be very easy to track them down in case a situation arises that needing such action. This means that the few entities who own these platforms, have a much greater control over people than would be easily imagined since these platforms keep so much private data belonging to people. The article has also mentioned other technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, and others that are easily deployed by governments under the guise of promoting security, but in real sense promote mass surveillance that ends up being a threat to personal freedoms and liberties.

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