by

Yuval Noah Harari on Why Technology Favors Tyranny – The Atlantic:

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. Historically, autocracies have faced crippling handicaps in regard to innovation and economic growth. In the late 20th century, democracies usually outperformed dictatorships, because they were far better at processing information. We tend to think about the conflict between democracy and dictatorship as a conflict between two different ethical systems, but it is actually a conflict between two different data-processing systems. Democracy distributes the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given 20th-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. Nobody had the ability to process all available information fast enough and make the right decisions. This is one reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, artificial intelligence may soon swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. In fact, it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze. If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database, you’ll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people. An authoritarian government that orders all its citizens to have their DNA sequenced and to share their medical data with some central authority would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data are strictly private. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.

If we have learned nothing else over the last two years (and I hope we have!), it is that systems inherit the tendencies and biases of the organizations that design and build them. Algorithms are not neutral.

I think Harari is right to be wary of AI and of technology in general. However, I think this particular worry is overstated.

Speaking more broadly, it is not technological dystopia I fear, so much as technological _crap_topia. I don’t worry too much about authoritarian dictatorship using AI-powered tech to monitor and manage every aspects of our lives. I think we are more likely to suffer an ever-progressing trend of shitty marketing—the sci-fi future equivalent of a search-query typo that causes the same stupid banner ad for a product you’re not interested in to follow you around for weeks at a time.

  1. @petebrown This post (by you) and the one before it were/are excellent (imho). Very thought provoking, for sure. I think that the technological disruption that Harari speaks of will impact societies that are more in the developing world in direct ways (removing humans from employment). I think that Harari is one of the best/deepest thinkers of our (human) future at the moment.

  2. @seansharp Thanks! I hadn’t ever run across Harari’s stuff before, but then a friend of mine posted this Atlantic piece, and I happened to also see the NYT profile from a week or two ago.

  3. @petebrown I can’t recommend his book, Sapiens, enough. I’m going to read his latest when the new year starts: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. First, I’m working through a completely different one though – The Light In High Places by a biologist who lives in the
    Wind River range in Wyoming studying Big Horn Sheep – quite a good read –

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