Can AI save democracy (and sell washing powder)?

I’ll deal with washing powder later, let’s start with Politics. Democracy, as we all know, is the Greek concept of rule by people, for the people, through voting their representatives into (and out of) power. It sounds simple, it’s anything but – democracy poses a lot of questions. Who is eligible to vote or be a representative? Is the representation proportional or geographic/constituency-based or a combination of the two? How does the government actually work, how long is their term of office? What are the rules regarding the election process? Is it compulsory to vote or can people opt out?

The troubling fact is, virtually every ‘democratic’ nation in the world has a different form of democracy, one that reflects their history, their culture and whatever suits them. In Switzerland, Australia and some 37 other countries it is compulsory to vote. In most of the world it is not, in many big countries it would be very hard to enforce. 100 countries use proportional representation (although not uniformly) and 50, like the UK, use ‘first past the post’. Many others have transferable votes (e.g. you vote for your first and second choice). Democracy is one idea with lots of different ways to implement it. Furthermore, whatever democratic system is adopted it is normally enshrined in a ‘constitution’ and is virtually impossible to change. The USA has a system that was designed after the Civil War.

And on the subject of the USA, is it even a democracy? A plutocracy is defined as ‘a system of government controlled exclusively by the wealthy, either directly or indirectly’. Does that sound familiar? You cannot win elections in America without big campaign budgets, you need name recognition. So you have to raise money from the wealthy, be wealthy yourself or both to become President. You can also win more votes than the other candidate and still lose, this happens fairly often because of the collegiate voting system which could be argued to be outdated and no longer fit for purpose – but no-one does argue this. Trying to fiddle with the constitution is a sure-fired vote loser.

It is very clear now that half the world do not believe in democracy and for us, the half that do, most of us do not really question what we are defending and yet are increasingly less confident in our politicians, ergo the ‘system’. Now AI comes along and everyone is terrified that it will subvert our democratic process by using its awesome power to generate highly convincing but fake news and then disseminate it widely, especially so since the half of the world that sees democracy and open society as the enemy will invest heavily to ensure it does exactly that.

MIT in the USA, a highly respected institution, has recently published their study on the potential impact of AI on Politics. Far be it for me to question the smartest brains but I will anyway. They look at it through the same lens that most people look at AI. They set out a 6 stage pathway to AI taking over from humans, in this case taking over government. The final milestone is the election of an AI ‘entity’ into a position of power. An earlier milestone, which they argue is pivotal, is the point at which AI generated testimony is admissible in a court of law. This does not seem so far-fetched but it would of course rely on AI being proven to be totally objective and evidence based. We’ve all seen the courtroom dramas where the ‘expert witness’, a hired gun, is exposed as neither objective nor in possession of all the facts. So why not AI?

If that is the case, and it seems more likely than not, perhaps AI could be used to improve and strengthen democracy. If you use a different lens to look at the impact of AI, the one I prefer to use because I want to be optimistic, you look for ways humans and AI work together to produce better outcomes (faster, more reliably and more creatively) than either AI or humans can do alone. What if AI could help people use their vote more effectively?

You can use AI to pose questions and get answers that draw on all available evidence – you can even use it to suggest good questions to ask. So what if there were an AI system that allowed people to make the most informed decisions possible on how to cast their vote? You can choose to ignore the answers but it could cut through all the electioneering and campaign bullshit, all the fake news, all the posturing and spin doctors. It could level the playing field so the candidate with the most money, the best advisors, the smoothest media skills loses their advantage.

Take a simple example and some simple questions. Say your main concerns were climate change and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. You could ask AI to tell you which candidate also focuses on these issues, what their voting record has been if they are seeking re-election, how hard they work, what is their relevant experience?

Well I decided to give it a go using Bard. I asked:-

I live in England. I care about climate change and the growing gap between the rich and the poor but I also want effective efficient government. Which political party should I vote for in the next general election?

Bard replied:-

The political parties in England that have policies that address climate change and the growing gap between the rich and the poor are:

  • Labour Party: The Labour Party has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2030, create a million new green jobs, and invest heavily in public transport. They have also promised to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund social programs.
  • Green Party: The Green Party is committed to tackling climate change and social inequality. They have pledged to ban fracking, invest in renewable energy, and introduce a universal basic income.
  • Liberal Democrats: The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2030. They have also promised to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and invest in public services.

Bard also added:-

Ultimately, the best party for you to vote for will depend on your own priorities and beliefs. It is important to do your research and compare the policies of the different parties before making a decision.

I think google are understandably covering themselves, a lot of questions you ask Bard get this ‘but you must make up your own mind’ kind of summary. Yes, but I asked and you gave me a list, you did not say it was in no particular order, so my conclusion is that I should vote Labour. If I do not like the candidate on offer in my area for some other reason I might take the next best choice, that is the system in the UK. In the UK it might be clear who I should vote for but because we do not have proportional representation and I do not want to waste my vote I might choose the party most likely to be able to form a government. Perhaps – and I’m just putting it out there – Bard knows this and that is why Labour come top of its list? Note the part of my question where I say I value effective and efficient government.

Anyway, food for thought. Perhaps AI can empower democracy?

I’m supposed to focus on marketing not politics, so I asked Bard another question, one that takes me back to my old job as Persil Brand Manager in the 1980’s where we used every trick in the book to outsell Ariel.

I asked:-

I have a family with young kids and live in London. Which washing powder should I buy, Persil or Ariel or is there something better than either?

The first reply said both Persil and Ariel were good quality, listed some things to think about and suggested other well-known brands like Fairy or Daz as alternatives.  But I pushed it and asked it to tell me which was best overall. Bard thought for a minute and then replied.

The answer is Persil Non-Bio if you are worried about sensitive skin.

If not, Ariel.

40 years ago when I was running the Persil brand, the guy who fought tooth and nail against the ‘men in grey suits’ at the top of Unilever (they were all men but to be fair some wore blue suits) for permission to re-introduce Persil Non-Bio so people had a choice between products with or without enzymes, I would have given you exactly the same answer, just as quickly.

I say you can trust Bard to tell you what washing product to choose and I think the same might be true of politicians and political systems.

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