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Why democracy is today's best form of government

But will artificial intelligence help it or destroy it?


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(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

There’s a big difference between what a person wants and what they need.

On one hand, we need healthy food, a good night’s rest and decent medical care. But a little voice inside our heads has us craving dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s, an overnight stay at the Ritz Carlton and a spa weekend at the St. Regis in Aspen to fix whatever is wrong.

The same is true with countries. There’s a big difference between what a country wants and what it needs.

While we may need better roads, schools and playgrounds, we want others to pay for them. And while we need elected officials who can make the best possible decisions, we tend to vote for candidates who are good looking and make us feel better.

Our wants and needs are vastly different creatures constantly pulling us in opposite directions.

In fact, many of us are addicted to our wants. A drug addict has an unquenchable thirst for drugs, a Facebook addict is always checking their phone, and a sex addict can never get enough.bThe irrational mind may live next door to the rational mind, but together they form contradictory arguments inside a rather dysfunctional neighborhood in our own heads.

So how can we possibly make better decisions and create a better world if all we have to work with is defective humans?

Current state of AI (artificial intelligence)

There tends to be a lot of confusion between machine learning and artificial intelligence. But in reality, machine learning is the only kind of AI that exists. At the same time, our understanding of AI is changing. Most of the things we thought of as AI in the past were little more than sophisticated forms of computer programming.

However, along with advances in technology, the latest strategy for AI developers has become, “Don't model the world, model the mind.”

When AI researchers “modeled the mind,” they created systems capable of learning increasingly complicated things about the world around them. Since 2012, a specific machine learning technique called “deep learning” has permeated the AI world. Researchers have abandoned the classical programming tricks-style of AI and switched to deep learning, because it works far better than any previous methodologies.

We've made more progress in the years since 2012 than in the preceding 25 years on several key AI problems including image understanding, signal processing, vocal comprehension, and understanding text. Keep in mind that deep learning still isn't true AI, the kind of sophisticated and adaptable intelligence humans exhibit, but it's a giant leap forward on the path to getting there.

Naturally, this raises a number of philosophical questions:

  • How can flawed humans possibly create un-flawed AI?
  • Is making the so-called “perfect” AI really optimal?
  • Will AI become the great compensator for human deficiencies?
  • Does AI eventually replace our need for other people?

Should we use AI to create better citizens?

One possible step towards integrating artificial intelligence with democracy will be to gameify the interface between people and government with something similar to customer loyalty programs, in this case by gameifying citizenship through a government loyalty program.

A system like this would effectively promote involvement, rewarding people for their role in creating a better functioning society. It would begin by asking questions like:

  • Have you gotten all your shots, finished high school, learned about American history, or served in the military or some similar community service position.
  • How many times have you voted since you were 18?
  • How many government services have you taken advantage of over the past decade?
  • If they sent you a survey asking you to evaluate their performance, did you answer that survey?
  • Have you been asked to serve on a jury? Did you?

Rewards for top citizens could range from things like low interest loans, to lower taxes, free national park passes, less TSA scrutiny at airports, higher credit ratings and maybe even favorable treatment in the event of a tax audit.

Perhaps the highest ranked citizens could even win a free night stay in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House.

With the right status, people may receive advance notification and priority rating when applying for certain jobs. When it comes to jobs, AI will have the ability to determine your optimal career path by analyzing past experiences, inherent skills, and individual preferences, and do it in a far more efficient manner than any system we have today.

How much longer will democracy survive?

Eight reasons democracy is today’s best form of government

Democracy is far from perfect, but when it comes to running a government, it has a number of built-in mechanisms for promoting fairness and participation. Here are some of the reasons why those who advocate democracy view it as today’s best form of government:

Democracy is the great equalizer. It doesn’t favor the rich over the poor, nor the successful over the unsuccessful, nor the healthy over the unhealthy, nor one race over another race, nor one region over another region.

Everyone has a stake, every person can voice their opinion.

It promotes fair and healthy competition allowing the best of the best to stand out.

Democracy promotes participation. Even poor people without formal education, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and little authority can play a significant role.

It’s self-adjusting. A democracy allows the most pertinent issues to rise to the top.

It diffuses tension by giving people an outlet. 

It places human values on a human system. Much like the value of stocks, currency, or collectables, we assign an emotional value to the world around us. Democracy is our system for assigning value to the people we elect or the referendums we vote on.

It both improves and preserves personal pride and dignity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Eight reasons democracy still comes up short:

There are no perfect systems and in many ways democracy still comes up short.

Democracy is biased towards what we want, not what we need.

Those who are elected are the ones who do the best job of appealing to the median IQ of the voting public. We like to think we’re electing the best and the brightest but we’re not.

It’s a very adversarial system. Rivalries are good to a certain point, but excessive rivalries create a polarizing environment.

Voters are not experts.

Democracy favors the “less busy.” Senior citizens carry an inordinate amount of clout because they have more time to be involved.

Democracy typically works better for those who receive the most benefits.

It favors the “fairest” decision over the “best” decision.

Democracy demands a constantly evolving system for it to function properly. In our increasingly complex society it requires constant monitoring, new kinds of checks and balances, oversights, rules, and limitations to make it function properly.

Coming up: Eight ways AI can improve democracy

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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