The New Fire: Democracy in the age of AI


The notion that artificial intelligence will benefit autocracies at the expense of democracies, that unencumbered by ethics, autocrats will crush dissent with automated surveillance systems, is too fatalistic, say Ben Buchanan and Andrew Imbrie, researchers at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, currently acting as assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the State Department, respectively.

The age of AI is still young, and its outcome is far from preordained, they argue in their new book, The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI, Fast Company reports:

Democracies have the opportunity to develop shared norms for the technology’s use at home and abroad, unlocking its extraordinary potential while still guarding against bias and preserving civil liberties. They have the capacity to integrate it into militaries and intelligence agencies in such a way that preserves and enhances democratic values while putting autocracies on the defensive. Most importantly, democracies offer an innovative ecosystem that can determine where the technology goes next. 

Some of the more disturbing implications of artificial intelligence are discussed in The Global Struggle Over AI Surveillance: Emerging Trends and Democratic Responses, a new report from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

“From cameras that identify the faces of passersby to algorithms that keep tabs on public sentiment online, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tools are opening new frontiers in state surveillance around the world,” states the report, edited by the Forum’s Beth Kerley, which addresses both the democracy implications of new technologies and vectors for civil society involvement in their design, deployment, and operation:

  • AI surveillance systems such as facial recognition cameras, “smart city” projects, predictive policing software, and social media monitoring tools are expanding government surveillance powers in ways that create new and serious risks to privacy and the rule of law.
  • These tools are spreading rapidly, with PRC vendors and those based in democracies both contributing to the growing global AI surveillance marketplace.
  • AI surveillance applications at their most dystopian can be seen in closed autocracies, above all the People’s Republic of China. But surveillance risks extend across regime types.
  • In “swing states”—countries that mix autocratic and democratic tendencies—new surveillance powers threaten to tilt the playing field further toward illiberal governments.
  • While democratic governments and international institutions are beginning to tackle AI governance questions, there is crucial work to do in moving from abstract principles to practical implementation. This will require greater democratic coordination, voluntary steps by the private sector, deeper commitment to government transparency, and active engagement at all stages with civil society and the broader public.
  • Through coalition building and innovative research methods, a number of enterprising organizations have already started the work of challenging opaque surveillance deals and creating the conditions for a more open and informed democratic debate on surveillance practices.

Buchanan and Imbrie share five key insights from their new book: Listen to the audio version—read by MIT Press Editorial Director Gita Manaktala—in the Next Big Idea App.

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