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Ronald Bailey, “Can Algorithms Run Things Better than Humans? Welcome to the Rise of the Algocracy”

Week 3

Ronald Bailey, “Can Algorithms Run Things Better than Humans? Welcome to the Rise of the Algocracy”

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Week 3

Executive Summary

Ronald Bailey is a science writer whose books include Liberation Biology and The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 21st Century. He has also produced documentaries for PBS and ABC, as well as published in magazines such as Reason and Forbes. We here focus on his 2019 extended article on the implications of AI for governance.

  1. Face-recognition software, such as Amazon’s Rekognition, is being tested and used by local police forces, as well as federal government agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The various particular uses—tracking unauthorized immigrants and suspected criminals—could be integrated into networked systems of mass surveillance.
  2. The systems are imperfect. False-positive recognitions—Bailey notes that the technology erroneously matched 28 members of Congress with criminal mugshots—will cause innocent people to be detained and subject to the dangers of police intervention.
  3. Yet police, bureaucrats, and other governance officials can also make mistakes, as well as intentionally lying and doing evil. Would the increased use of algorithms in governance minimize errors, bias, and intentional evil-doing? Algocracy is defined as “algorithmic governance that uses data mining and predictive/descriptive analytics to constrain and control human behavior.”
  4. The average person now interacts with connected digital devices frequently: smartphones, Fitbits, payment systems, security cameras, vending machines. As self-driving vehicles, medical implants, home controls such as Alexa, and digital signage become more omnipresent, one prediction is that by 2025 each of us “will interact with connected digital devices nearly 4,800 times per day.”
  5. Who controls the information and the actions possible with it thus becomes a politically basic issue. Will we each control our own, will we be nudged by a combination of personal decisions, businesses, and governments, or will we become controlled by impersonal forces we’re largely unaware of? Entrepreneurship will boom as the acceleration creates more opportunities and as the “time it takes to raise seed capital has shrunk from years to minutes.” (23)
  6. One possible future is surveillance capitalism, in which we give our personal data to private businesses that then “use their data-parsing technologies to offer tailored suggestions for services and products that they hope will fulfill our needs and desires.” We will participate voluntarily because we believe the algorithms used will be more benevolent than malevolent.
  7. Another possibility is surveillance communism: dictatorial governments use algorithms to direct citizens’ behavior toward the government’s desired outcomes rather than the individual citizen’s. China’s social-credit experiment that began in 2014 is a large step along that road, at the end of which lies the dystopia portrayed in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the Thought Police discover and punish not only “bad actions” but “thought-crimes”—i.e., personal thoughts that have been proscribed by the Party.

Read Ronald Bailey’s full article here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2020.

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