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Article from the book Towards a New Enlightenment? A Transcendent Decade

The Past Decade and Future of AI’s Impact on Society

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is a technical term referring to artifacts used to detect contexts or to effect actions in response to detected contexts. Our capacity to build such artifacts has been increasing, and with it the impact they have on our society. This article first documents the social and economic changes brought about by our use of AI, particularly but not exclusively focusing on the decade since the 2007 advent of smartphones, which contribute substantially to “big data” and therefore the efficacy of machine learning. It then projects from this political, economic, and personal challenges confronting humanity in the near future, including policy recommendations. Overall, AI is not as unusual a technology as expected, but this very lack of expected form may have exposed us to a significantly increased urgency concerning familiar challenges. In particular, the identity and autonomy of both individuals and nations is challenged by the increased accessibility of knowledge.


The past decade, and particularly the past few years, have been transformative for artificial intelligence (AI) not so much in terms of what we can do with this technology as what we are doing with it. Some place the advent of this era to 2007, with the introduction of smartphones. As I detail below, at its most essential, intelligence is just intelligence, whether artifact or animal. It is a form of computation, and as such a transformation of information. The cornucopia of deeply personal information that resulted from the willful tethering of a huge portion of society to the Internet has allowed us to pass immense explicit and implicit knowledge from human culture via human brains into digital form. Here we can not only use it to operate with human-like competence, but also produce further knowledge and behavior by means of machine-based computation.

For decades—even prior to the inception of the term—AI has aroused both fear and excitement as humanity contemplates creating machines in our image. This expectation that intelligent artifacts should by necessity be human-like artifacts blinded most of us to the important fact that we have been achieving AI for some time. While the breakthroughs in surpassing human ability at human pursuits, such as chess (Hsu, 2002), Go (Silver et al., 2016), and translation (Wu et al., 2016), make headlines, AI has been a standard part of the industrial repertoire since at least the 1980s. Then production-rule or “expert” systems became a standard technology for checking circuit boards and detecting credit card fraud (Liao, 2005). Similarly, machine-learning (ML) strategies like genetic algorithms have long been used for intractable computational problems, such as scheduling, and neural networks not only to model and understand human learning, but also for basic industrial control and monitoring (Widrow et al., 1994). In the 1990s, probabilistic and Bayesian methods revolutionized ML and opened the door to some of the most pervasive AI technologies now available: search through massive troves of data (Bishop, 1995). This search capacity included the ability to do semantic analysis of raw text, astonishingly enabling Web users to find the documents they seek out of trillions of Web pages just by typing only a few words (Lowe, 2001; Bullinaria and Levy, 2007).

Today, AI breakthroughs in surpassing human ability in certain activities make headlines, but AI has been a standard part of the industrial repertoire since at least the 1980s

This capacity to use AI for discovery has been extended not only by the massive increase of digital data and available computing power, but also by innovations in AI and ML algorithms. We are now searching photographs, videos, and audio (Barrett et al., 2016; Wu et al., 2016). We can translate, transcribe, read lips, read emotions (including lying), forge signatures and other handwriting, and forge video (Hancock et al., 2007; Eyben et al., 2013; Assael et al., 2016; Haines et al., 2016; Reed et al., 2016; Vincent, 2016; Schuller et al., 2016; Sartori et al., 2016; Thies et al., 2016; Deng et al., 2017; Chung and Zisserman, 2017). Critically, we can forge real-time audio/video during live transmissions, allowing us to choose the words millions “witness,” particularly for celebrities such as politicians for whom there is already a great deal of data for composing accurate models (Thies et al., 2016; Suwajanakorn et al., 2017). At the time of this writing, there is increasing evidence that the outcomes of the 2016 US presidential election and UK referendum on EU membership were both altered by the AI detection and targeting of “swing voters” via their public social-media use (Cadwalladr, 2017a,b; ICO, 2018), not to mention the AI-augmented tools used in cyberhacking (Brundage et al., 2018). AI is here now, available to and benefiting us all. But its consequences for our social order are not only not understood, but have until recently barely even yet been the subject of study (Bryson, 2015). Yet now too, with advances in robotics, AI is entering our physical spaces in the form of autonomous vehicles, weapons, drones, and domestic devices, including “smart speakers” (really, microphones) and even games consoles (Jia et al., 2016). We are becoming surrounded by—even embedded in—pervasive automated perception, analysis, and increasingly action.

BBVA-OpenMind-ilustración-Joanna-J-Bryson-ultima-decada-y-el-futuro-del-impacto-IA-en-la-sociedad-Un hombre observa un software que analiza los movimientos humanos en el estand de la compañia de IA Horizon Robotics durante la feria Scurity China, en Pekin, octubre de 2018-AI
A man observes software that tracks human movements at AI company Horizon Robotics´ stand during the Security China fair in Beijing, October 2018

What have been and will be the impacts of pervasive synthetic intelligence? How can society regulate the way technology alters our lives? In this article, I begin by presenting a clean, clear set of definitions for the relevant terminology. I then review concerns and suggested remediations with respect to technology. Finally, I make expert though unproven recommendations concerning the value of individual human lives, as individual human capacities come increasingly under threat of redundancy to automation.


The following definitions are not universally used, but derive from a well-established AI text Winston (1984), as well as from the study of biological intelligence (Barrows, 2000, attributed to Romanes, 1883). They are selected for clarity of communication at least local to this chapter, about the existing and potential impacts of intelligence, particularly in machines. Intelligence is the capacity to do the right thing at the right time, in a context where doing nothing (making no change in behavior) would be worse. Intelligence then requires:

— the capacity to perceive contexts for action;

— the capacity to act;

— the capacity to associate contexts to actions.

By this definition, plants are intelligent (Trewavas, 2005). So is a thermostat (McCarthy, 1983; Touretzky, 1988). They can perceive and respond to context: for example, plants to the direction of light, thermostats to temperature. We further discriminate a system as being cognitive if it is able to modify its intelligence, something plants and at least mechanical thermostats cannot do. Cognitive systems are able to learn new contexts, actions, and/or associations between these. This comes closer to the conventional definition of “intelligent.”

Intelligence is the capacity to do the right thing at the right time, in a context where doing nothing (making no change in behavior) would be worse

Intelligence as I defined it here is a strict subset of computation, the transformation of information. Note that computation is a physical process, it is not maths. It takes time, space, and energy. Intelligence is the subset of computation that transforms a context into action.

Artificial intelligence (AI), by convention, is a term used to describe (typically digital) artifacts that extend any of the capacities related to natural intelligence. So, for example, machine vision, speech recognition, pattern recognition, and fixed (unlearning) production systems are all considered examples of AI, with algorithms that can be found in standard AI textbooks (Russell and Norvig, 2009). These can also all be seen as forms of computation, even if their outputs are not conventionally seen as action. If we embrace, though, the lessons of embodied robotics (see below), then we might extend this definition to include as AI any artifact that extends our own capacities to perceive and act. Although this would be an unusual definition, it might also give us a firmer grip on the sorts of changes AI brings to our society, by allowing us to examine a longer history of technological interventions.

Presentación del dispositivo de GoPro durante el congreso de desarrolladores I/O en San Francisco, en mayo de 2015. Este dispositivo incorpora 16 cámaras y usado con el software Jump, de Google, proporciona visión de 360 grados
Presentation of a GoPro device at the I/O developers congress in San Francisco in May 2015. This device includes sixteen cameras that can be used with Google’s Jump software to provide 360º vision

Machine learning (ML) is any means of programming AI that requires not only conventional hand coding, but also a component of automated generalization over presented data by means of accumulating statistics on that data (Murphy, 2012; Erickson et al., 2017). Often, but not necessarily, ML comes down to seeking regularities in data that are associated with categories of interest, including appropriate opportunities for particular actions. ML is also often used to capture associations, and can be used to acquire new action skills, for example from demonstration (Huang et al., 2016).

Intelligence is a strict subset of computation, the transformation of information. Note that computation is a physical process, it is not maths. It takes time, space, and energy. Intelligence is the subset of computation that transforms a context into action

Note that all ML still involves a hand-programmed component. The mere conceptualization or discovery of an algorithm never leads to a machine capable of sensing or acting springing spontaneously into existence. All AI is by definition an artifact, brought into being by deliberate human acts. Something must be built and designed to connect some data source to some representation before any learning can occur. All intelligent systems have an architecture, a layout through which energy and information flows, and nearly always including locations where some information is retained, termed memory. The design of this architecture is called systems engineering; it is at this point that a system’s safety and validity should be established. Contrary to some outrageous but distressingly frequent claims, AI safety is not a new field. Systems engineering in fact predates computers (Schlager, 1956), and has always been a principal component of computer-science education. AI has long been integrated into software, as documented in the introduction, so there is a long history of it being engineered in safe ways (for example, Bryson, 2003; Chessell and Smith, 2013).

Robots are artifacts that sense and act in the physical world, and in real time. By this definition a smartphone is a (domestic) robot. It has not only microphones but also a variety of proprioceptive sensors that allow it to know when its orientation is changing or it is falling. Its range of actions includes intervening with its user and transmitting information including instructions to other devices. The same is true of many game consoles and digital home assistants—“smart speakers”/microphones like Google Home, Amazon’s Echo (Alexa), or Microsoft’s Cortana.

Autonomy is technically the capacity to act as an individual (Armstrong and Read, 1995; Cooke, 1999). So, for example, a country loses its autonomy either if its institutions collapse so that only its citizens’ individual actions have efficacy, or if its institutions come under the influence of other agencies or governments to such an extent that again its own government has no impact on its course of actions. Of course, either extreme is very unusual. In fact, for social animals like humans autonomy is never absolute (Gilbert et al., 2012). Our individual intelligence determines many of our actions, but some cells may become cancerous in pursuit of their own goals counter to our overall well-being (Hanahan and Weinberg, 2011). Similarly, we fully expect a family, place of work, or government, to have impact on our actions. We also experience far more social influence implicitly than we are ever aware of (Devos and Banaji, 2003). Nevertheless, we are viewed as autonomous because there is an extent to which our own individual intelligence also influences our behavior. A technical system able to sense the world and select an action specific to its present context is therefore called “autonomous” even though its actions will ultimately be determined by some combination of the designers that constructed its intelligence and its operators. Operators may influence AI in real time, and will necessarily influence it in advance by setting parameters of its operation, including when and where it operates, if at all. As discussed earlier, designers call the system into existence and determine its capacities, particularly what information it has access to and what actions it can take. Even if a designer chooses to introduce an element of chance, such as dependence on the present environment or a random-number generator into the control of an AI system, that inclusion is still the deliberate choice of the designer.

AI safety is not a new field. Systems engineering in fact predates computers (Schlager, 1956), and has always been a principal component of computer-science education

Concerns about AI and Society

AI is core to some of the most successful companies in history in terms of market capitalization—Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon. Along with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) more generally, AI has revolutionized the ease with which people from all over the world can access knowledge, credit, and other benefits of contemporary global society. Such access has helped lead to massive reduction of global inequality and extreme poverty, for example by allowing farmers to know fair prices, best crops, and giving them access to accurate weather predictions (Aker and Mbiti, 2010).

AI is the beneficiary of decades of regulatory policy: research and deployment has so far been largely up-regulated with massive government and other capital investment (Miguel and Casado, 2016; Technology Council Committee on Technology, 2016; Brundage and Bryson, 2017). Although much of the emphasis of later parts of this paper focuses on possible motivations for, or mechanisms of, regulatory restriction on AI, it should be recognized that:

  1. any such AI policies should and basically always will be developed and implemented in the light of the importance of respecting the positive impacts of technology as well;2
  2. no one is talking about introducing regulation to AI. AI already exists in a regulatory framework (Brundage and Bryson, 2017; O’Reilly, 2017); what we are discussing is whether that framework needs optimizing;
  3. regulation has so far mostly been entirely constructive, with governments providing vast resources to companies and universities developing AI. Even where regulation constrains, informed and well-designed constraint can lead to more sustainable and even faster growth.

Having said this, academics, technologists, and the general public have raised a number of concerns that may indicate a need for down-regulation or constraint. Smith (2018), president of Microsoft, recently asserted:

[Intelligent3] technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression. These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses. In a democratic republic, there is no substitute for decision-making by our elected representatives regarding the issues that require the balancing of public safety with the essence of our democratic freedoms.

In this section I categorize perceived risks by the sort of policy requirements they are likely to generate. I also make recommendations about whether these are nonproblems, problems of ICT or technology more generally, or problems special to AI, and in each case what the remedy may be.

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Superintelligence

I start with some of the most sensational claims—that as artificial intelligence increases to the point that it surpasses human abilities, it may come to take control over our resources and outcompete our species, leading to human extinction. As mentioned in Section 1, AI is already superhuman in many domains. We can already do arithmetic better, play chess and Go better, transcribe speech better, read lips better, remember more things for longer, and indeed be faster and stronger with machines than unaided. While these capacities have disrupted human lives including employment (see below), they have in no way led to machine ambition.

Some claim that the lack of machine ambition, or indeed domination, is because the forms of AI generated so far are not sufficiently general. The term artificial general intelligence (AGI) is used to describe two things: AI capable of learning anything without limits, and human-like AI. These two meanings of AGI are generally conflated, but such conflation is incoherent, since in fact human intelligence has significant limitations. Understanding the limitations of human intelligence is informative because they relate also to the limits of AI.

We can already do arithmetic better, play chess and Go better, transcribe speech better, read lips better, remember more things for longer, and indeed be faster and stronger with machines than unaided

Limitations on human intelligence derive from two causes: combinatorics and bias. The first, combinatorics, is a universal problem affecting all computation and therefore all natural and artificial intelligence: combinatorics (Sipser, 2005). If an agent is capable of one hundred actions, then it is capable of 10,000 two-step plans. Since humans are capable of far more than one hundred different actions and perform far more than two actions even in a day, we can see that the space of possible strategies is inconceivably vast, and cannot be easily conquered by any scale of intelligence (Wolpert, 1996b).

However, computer science has demonstrated that some ways of exploring such vast spaces are more effective than others, at least for specific purposes (Wolpert, 1996a). Most relevantly to intelligence, concurrent search by many processors simultaneously can be effective provided that the problem space can be split between them, and that a solution once found can be both recognized and communicated (Grama, 2003). The reason human technology is so much more advanced than other species’ is because we are far more effective at this strategy of concurrent search, due to our unique capacity to share advances or “good tricks” via language (Dennett, 2013; Bryson, 2008, 2015; van Schaik et al., 2017). Our culture’s increasing pace of change is in part due to the unprecedented number of individuals with good health and education connected together by ICT, but also to our augmentation of our search via machine computing. Our increasing capacities for AI and artifactual computation more generally increase further our potential rate of exploration; quantum computation could potentially accelerate these far further (Williams, 2010). However, note that these advantages do not come for free. Doing two computations at once may double the speed of the computation if the task was perfectly divisible, but it certainly doubles the amount of space and energy needed to do the computation. Quantum computing is concurrent in space as well as time, but its energy costs are so far unknown, and very likely to be exorbitant.

Our culture’s increasing pace of change is in part due to the unprecedented number of individuals with good health and education connected together by ICT, but also to our augmentation of our search via machine computing

Much of the recent immense growth of AI has been largely due to improved capacities to “mine” using ML the existing discoveries of humanity and nature more generally (Moeslund and Granum, 2001; Calinon et al., 2010; Caliskan et al., 2017). The outcomes of some of our previous computation are stored in our culture, and biological evolution can also be thought of as a massive parallel search, where the outcomes are collated very inefficiently, only as fast as the best genes manage to reproduce themselves. We can expect this strategy of mining past solutions to soon plateau, when artificial and human intelligence come to be sharing the same, though still-expanding, boundary of extant knowledge.

The second source of limitations on human intelligence, which I called “bias” above, are those special to our species. Given the problems of combinatorics, all species only explore a tiny subset of possible solutions, and in ML such focus is called bias. The exact nature of any biological intelligence is part of its evolutionary niche, and is unlikely to be shared even by other biological species except to the extent that they have similar survival requirements and strategies (Laland et al., 2000). Thus, we share many of our cognitive attributes—including perception and action capacities, and, importantly, motivations—with other apes. Yet we also have specialist motivations and capacities reflecting our highly social nature (Stoddart, 1990). No amount of intelligence in itself necessitates social competitiveness, neither does it demand the desire to be accepted by an ingroup, to dominate an outgroup, nor to achieve recognition within an ingroup. These are motivations that underlie human cooperation and competition that result from our evolutionary history (Mace, 1998; Lamba and Mace, 2012; Jordan et al., 2016; Bryson et al., 2017); further, they vary even among humans (Van Lange et al., 1997; Herrmann et al., 2008; Sylwester et al., 2017). For humans, social organizations easily varied to suit a politico-economic context are a significant survival mechanism (Stewart et al., 2018).

None of this is necessary—and much of it is even incoherent—from the perspective of an artifact. Artifacts are definitionally designed by human intent, not directly by evolution. With these intentional acts of authored human creation4 comes not only human responsibility, but an entirely different landscape of potential rewards and design constraints (Bryson et al., 2017; Bryson, 2018).

Given all of the above, AGI is obviously a myth—in fact, two orthogonal myths:

  1. no amount of natural or artificial intelligence will be able to solve all problems;
  2. even extremely powerful AI is exceedingly unlikely to be very human-like, because it will embody an entirely different set of motivations and reward functions.

These assertions, however, do not protect us from another, related concern. Superintelligence is a term used to describe the situation when a cognitive system not only learns, but learns how to learn. Here again there are two component issues. First, at this point an intelligence should be able to rapidly snowball to such an extent that it would be incomprehensible to ordinary human examination. Second, even if the intelligence was carefully designed to have goals aligned with human needs, it might develop for itself unanticipated subgoals that are not. For example, a chess-playing robot might learn to shoot the people that deprive it of sufficient resources to improve its game play by switching it off at night, or a filing robot might turn the planet into paperclips in order to ensure all potential papers can be adequately ordered (Bostrom, 2012).

These two examples are ludicrous if we remember that all AI systems are designed and a matter of human responsibility. No one has ever made a chess program that represents information concerning any resources not on the chessboard (with the possible exception of time), nor with the capacity to fire a gun. The choice of capacities and components of a computer system is again part of its architecture. As I mentioned earlier, the systems engineering of architecture is an important component to extant AI safety, and as I will say below (Section 4.3), it can also be an important means for regulating AI.

However, the concept of superintelligence itself is not ludicrous; it is clear that systems that learn to learn can and do experience exponential growth. The mistake made by futurists concerned with superintelligence is to think that this situation is only a possible future. In fact, it is an excellent description of human culture over the last 10,000 years, since the innovation of writing (Haberl et al., 2007; Barnosky, 2008). The augmentation of human intelligence with technology has indeed resulted in a system that has not been carefully designed and results in unintended consequences. Some of these consequences are very hazardous, such as global warming and the reduction of species diversity. List and Pettit (2011) make a similar point when they call human organizations such as corporations or governments “AI.”

As I mentioned, I will return to the importance of architecture and design again, but it is worth emphasizing once more here the necessity of such biases and limits. Robots make it particularly apparent that behavior depends not only on computational capacities but also on other system attributes, such as physical capacities. Digital manipulation, such as typing or playing the flute, is just not an option for either a smartphone or a snake, however intelligent. Motivations are similar. Unless we design a system to have anthropomorphic goals, social perception, and social behavior capacities, we are not going to see it learning to produce anthropomorphic social behavior, such as seeking to dominate conversations, corporations, or countries. If corporations do show these characteristics, it is because of the expression of the human components of their organization, and also because of the undisciplined, evolutionary means by which they accrete size and power. From this example we can see that it is possible for an AI system—at the very least by the List and Pettit (2011) argument—to express superintelligence, which implies that such intelligent systems should be regulated to avoid this.

The concept of superintelligence itself is not ludicrous; it is clear that systems that learn to learn can and do experience exponential growth. The mistake made by futurists concerned with superintelligence is to think that this situation is only a possible future

From the above I conclude that the problem of superintelligence is real but not special to AI; it is, rather, one our cultures already face. AI is, however, now a contributing factor to our capacity to excel, but this may also lead us to learn to better self-regulate—that is, govern—as it has several times in the past (Milanovic, 2016; Scheidel, 2017). Even were AGI to be true and the biological metaphor of AI competing by natural selection to be sound, there is no real reason to believe that we would be extinguished by AI. We have not extinguished the many species (particularly microbial) on which we ourselves directly depend. Considering unintended consequences of the exponentially increasing intelligence of our entire socio-technical system (rather than AI on its own) does, however, lead us to more substantial concerns.

Inequality and Employment

For centuries there have been significant concerns about the displacement of workers by technology (Autor, 2015). There is no question that new technologies do disrupt communities, families, and lives, but also that historically the majority of this disruption has been for the better (Pinker, 2012). In general, lifespans are longer and infant mortality lower than ever before, and these indicators are good measures of contentedness in humans, as low infant mortality in particular is well associated with political stability (King and Zeng, 2001).

However, some disruption does lead to political upheaval, and has been recently hypothesized to associate with the rise of AI. Income (and presumably wealth) inequality is highly correlated with political polarization (McCarty et al., 2016). Political polarization is defined by the inability of political parties to cooperate in democratic governance, but periods of polarization are also characterized by increases in identity politics and political extremism. Political polarization and income inequality covary but either can lead the other; the causal factors underlying the relationship are not well understood (Stewart et al., 2018). What is known is that the last time these measures were as high as they are now (at least in the OECD) was immediately before and after World War I. Unfortunately, it took decades of policy innovation, a global financial crisis, and a second world war before inequality and polarization were radically reduced and stabilized in the period 1945–78 (Scheidel, 2017), though note that in some countries such as the USA and UK the second shock of the financial crisis was enough.

Robots soldando componentes para vehículos en la planta de ensamblaje de Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) en Greer, Carolina del Sur, mayo de 2018
Robots welding components at the Bayerische Motoren Werke, A.G. (BMW) assembly plant in Greer, South Carolina, May 2018

Fortunately, we now know how to redress this situation—redistribution lowers inequality. After World War II, when tax rates were around fifty percent, modern welfare states were built or finalized, transnational wealth extraction was blocked (Bullough, 2018), and both income inequality and political polarization were kept low for over twenty years. During this time, wages also kept pace with productivity (Mishel, 2012). However, some time around 1978 wages plateaued, and both inequality and political polarization began rising, again in the OECD.5 The question is what caused this to happen. There are many theories, but given the starkness of the shift on many metrics it looks more like a change in policy than of technology. This could reflect geopolitical changes of the time—it could signal, for example, the point at which economically influential members of the OECD detected the coming end of the Cold War, and shifted away from policies designed to combat the threat of Communist uprisings.

Income inequality and political polarization might be the result of the rise of AI, but the fact that similar political and economic trends occurred in the late 1800s indicates that this is not a special concern of any one technology

Regardless of the causes, with respect to AI, the fact that similar political and economic trends occurred in the late 1800s again means that this is not a special concern of any one technology. While, as mentioned, there is so far no consensus on causes, in ongoing research, I with other authors6 are exploring the idea that some technologies reduce costs that had traditionally maintained diversity in the economic system. For example, when transport costs are high, one may choose to use a nearby provider rather than finding the global best provider for a particular good. Similarly, lack of information transparency or scaling capacity may result in a more diverse use of providers. Technical innovations (including in business processes) may overcome these costs and allow relatively few companies to dominate. Examples from the late nineteenth century might include the use of oil, rail, and telegraph, and the improvement of shipping and newspaper delivery.

Where a few providers receive all the business, they will also receive all of the wealth. Governance is a primary mechanism of redistribution (Landau, 2016), thus revolutions in technology may require subsequent revolutions in governance in order to reclaim equilibrium (Stewart et al., 2018). The welfare state could be one such example (Scheidel, 2017). We will return to discussing the possible need for innovations in governance below (Section 4).

To return to AI or more likely ICT, even if these technologies are not unique in contributing to inequality and political polarization, they may well be the principal component technologies presently doing so. Further, the public and policy attention currently directed toward AI may afford opportunities to both study and address the core causes of inequality and polarization, particularly if AI is seen as a crisis (Tepperman, 2016). Nevertheless, it is worth visiting one hypothesized consequence of polarization in particular. An increase in identity politics may lead to the increased use of beliefs to signal ingroup status or affiliation (Iyengar et al., 2012; Newman et al., 2014), which would unfortunately decrease their proportional use to predict or describe the world—that is, to reflect facts. Thus, ironically, the age of information may not universally be the age of knowledge, but rather also an age of disinformation.7

This reliance on beliefs as ingroup indicators may influence another worrying trait about contemporary politics: loss of faith in experts. While occasionally motivated by the irresponsible use or even abuse of position by some experts, in general losing access to experts’ views is a disaster. The combinatorial explosion of knowledge mentioned in Section 3.1 also means that no one, however intelligent, can master in their lifetime all human knowledge. If society ignores the stores of expertise it has built up—often through taxpayer-funding of higher education—it sets itself at a considerable disadvantage.

These concerns about the nature and causes of “truthiness” in what should be the information age lead also to our next set of concerns, about the use of personal information.

Privacy, Personal Liberty, and Autonomy

When we consider the impact of AI on individual behavior, we now come to a place where ICT more clearly has a unique impact. There have long been periods of domestic spying which have been associated with everything from prejudiced skew in opportunities to pogroms. However, ICT is now allowing us to keep long-term records on anyone who produces storable data—for example, anyone with bills, contracts, digital devices, or a credit history, not to mention any public writing and social-media use. That is, essentially, everyone.

It is not only the storage and accessibility of digital records that changes our society; it is the fact that these can be searched using algorithms for pattern recognition. We have lost the default assumption of anonymity by obscurity (Selinger and Hartzog, 2017). We are to some extent all celebrities now: any one of us can be identified by strangers, whether by facial-recognition software or data mining of shopping or social-media habits (Pasquale, 2015). These may indicate not just our identity but our political or economic predispositions, and what strategies might be effective for changing these (Cadwalladr, 2017a,b). ML allows us to discover new patterns and regularities of which we may have had no previous conception. For example, that word choice or even handwriting pressure on a digital stylus can indicate emotional state, including whether someone is lying (Hancock et al., 2007; Bandyopadhyay and Hazra, 2017), or a pattern of social-media use can predict personality categories, political preferences, and even life outcomes (Youyou et al., 2015).

BBVA-OpenMind-ilustración-Joanna-J-Bryson-la-ultima-decada-y-el-futuro-del-impacto-de-la-IA-en-la-sociedad-Chistopher Wylie, former director of the SCL  Group, Cambridge Analytics´ parent company - at the TIME  100 gala dinner in New York, April 2018. One month earlier, Wylie revealed that millions of Facebook user´s personal information had been stolen by Cambridge Analitycs for political use
Chistopher Wylie, former director of the SCL Group, Cambridge Analytics´ parent company – at the TIME 100 gala dinner in New York, April 2018. One month earlier, Wylie revealed that millions of Facebook user´s personal information had been stolen by Cambridge Analitycs for political use

It is not only the storage and accessibility of digital records that changes our society; it is the fact that these can be searched using algorithms for pattern recognition. We have lost the default assumption of anonymity by obscurity

Machine learning has enabled near-human and even superhuman abilities in transcribing speech from voice, recognizing emotions from audio or video recordings, as well as forging handwriting or video (Valstar and Pantic, 2012; Griffin et al., 2013; Eyben et al., 2013; Kleinsmith and Bianchi-Berthouze, 2013; Hofmann et al., 2014; Haines et al., 2016; Reed et al., 2016; Vincent, 2016; Thies et al., 2016; Deng et al., 2017). The better a model we have of what people are likely to do, the less information we need to predict what an individual will do next (Bishop, 2006; Youyou et al., 2015). This principle allows forgery by taking a model of a person’s writing or voice, combining it with a stream of text, and producing a “prediction” or transcript of how that person would likely write or say that text (Haines et al., 2016; Reed et al., 2016). The same principle might allow political strategists to identify which voters are likely to be persuaded if not to change party affiliation, at least to increase or decrease their probability of turning out to vote, and then to apply resources to persuade them to do so. Such a strategy has been alleged to have impacted significantly on recent elections in the UK and USA (Cadwalladr, 2017a,b; ICO, 2018); if so, they were almost certainly tested and deployed earlier in other elections less carefully watched.

Individuals in our society might then reasonably fear the dissemination of their actions or beliefs for two reasons: first because it makes them easier to predict and therefore manipulate; and second because it exposes them to persecution by those who do not approve of their beliefs. Such persecution could range from bullying by individuals, through to missed career or other organizational opportunities, and on to in some unstable (or at least unethical) societies, imprisonment or even death at the hands of the state. The problem with such fears is not only that the stress of bearing them is itself noxious, but also that in inhibiting personal liberty and free expression we reduce the number of ideas disseminated to society as a whole, and therefore limit our ability to innovate (Mill, 1859; Price, 1972). Responding to both opportunities and challenges requires creativity and free thinking at every level of society.

Corporate Autonomy, Revenue, and Liability 

These considerations of personal autonomy lead directly to the final set of concerns I describe here, which is not one frequently mentioned. Theoretical biology tells us that where there is greater communication, there is a higher probability of cooperation (Roughgarden et al., 2006). While cooperation is often wonderful, it can also be thought of as essentially moving some portion of autonomy from the individual to a group (Bryson, 2015). Let us recall from the Section 2 definitions that the extent of autonomy an entity has is the extent to which it determines its own actions. Individual and group autonomy must to some extent trade off, though there are means of organizing groups that offer more or less liberty for their constituent parts. Thus, the limits on personal liberty just described may be a very natural outcome of introducing greater capacity for communication. Here once more, I again refer to all of ICT, but AI and ML with their capacity to accelerate the search for both solutions and collaborators are surely a significant component, and possibly game-changing.

One irony here is that many people think that bigger data is necessarily better, but better for what? Basic statistics teaches us that the number of data points we need to make a prediction is limited by the amount of variation in that data, providing only that the data is a true random sample of its population.8 The extent of data we need for science or medicine may require only a minuscule fraction of a population. However, if we want to spot specific individuals to be controlled, dissuaded, or even promoted, then of course we want to “know all the things.”

But changing the costs and benefits of investment at the group level have more consequences than only privacy and liberty. ICT facilitates blurring the distinction between customer and corporation, or even the definition of an economic transaction. This has so far gone largely unrecognized, though see Perzanowski and Schultz (2016); Frischmann and Selinger (2016). Customers now do real labor for the corporations to whom they give their custom: pricing and bagging groceries, punching data at ATMs for banks, filling in forms for airlines, and so forth (Bryson, 2015). The value of this labor is not directly remunerated—we assume that we receive cheaper products in return, and as such our loss of agency to these corporations might be seen as a form of bartering. They are also not denominated, obscuring the value of this economy. Thus, ICT facilitates a black or at least opaque market that reduces measured income and therefore tax revenue where taxation is based on denominated turnover or income. This problem holds for everyone using Internet services and interfaces, even ignoring the problematic definitions of employment raised by platforms (though see O’Reilly, 2017). Our improving capacity to derive value and power while avoiding revenue may also help explain the mystery of our supposed static productivity (Brynjolfsson et al., 2017).

This dynamic is most stark in the case of “free” Web services. Clearly, we are receiving information and/or entertainment in exchange for data and/or attention. If we attend to content co-presented with advertisements, we afford the presenters an opportunity to influence our behavior. The same is true for less conventional forms of nudging, for example the postulated political interventions mentioned in Section 3.3. However, these exchanges are only denominated (if at all) in aggregate, and only when the corporation providing such service is valuated. Much of the data is even collected on speculation; it may be of no or little value until an innovative use is conceived years later.

ICT facilitates blurring the distinction between customer and corporation, or even the definition of an economic transaction. This has so far gone largely unrecognized

Our increasing failure to be able to denominate revenue at the traditional point—income, or exchange—may be another cause for increasing wealth inequality, as less of the economy is recognized, taxed, and redistributed. An obvious solution would be to tax wealth directly—for example, the market value of a corporation—rather than income. The information age may make it easier to track the distribution of wealth, making this strategy more viable than it has been in the past, particularly relative to the challenges of tracking income, if the latter challenges are indeed increasing as I described. However, it is inadequate if that wealth is then taxed only in the country (often a tax haven) in which the corporation is formally incorporated. Given that we can see the transnational transfer of data and engagement with services, we should in theory be able to disseminate redistribution in proportion to the extent and value of data derived. Enforcing such a system transnationally would require substantial innovations, since ordinarily taxation is run by government, and there is almost definitionally no transnational government. There are, however, international treaties and organized economic areas. Large countries or coordinated economies, such as the European Economic Area, may be able to demand equitable redistribution for their citizens in exchange for the privilege of access to those citizens. China has successfully demonstrated that such access is not necessarily a given, and indeed blocking access can facilitate the development of local competition. Similar strategies are being used by American cities and states against platforms such as Uber and Airbnb.

Any AI policy should and basically always will be developed and implemented in the light if the importance of respecting the positive impacts of technology
Miembros del Parlamento Europeo durante una votación de la Eurocámara en la sede de Estrasburgo, Francia, marzo de 2018
European Parliament members voting in the Strasburg, France, chamber un March 2018

Taxation of ICT wealth leads me to a proposed distortion of law that is particularly dangerous. In 2016 the European Parliament proposed that AI or robotics might be reasonably taxed as “e-persons.” This is a terrible idea (Bryson et al., 2017). It would allow corporations to automate part of their business process, then break off that piece in such a way as to limit their liabilities for both taxes and legal damages.

The idea of taxing robots has populist appeal for two reasons. First, it seems basic common sense that if robots are “taking our jobs” they should also “pay taxes” and thus support “us” via the welfare state. Second, many people find appealing the idea that we might extend human life—or something more essential about humanity than life—synthetically via AI and/or robotics. Unfortunately, both of these ideas are deeply incoherent, resting on ignorance about the nature of intelligence.

As described in Section 3.1 earlier, both of these appeals assume that intelligent means in part human-like. While there is no question that the word has been used that way culturally, by the definitions presented in Section 2 it is clearly completely false. To address the second concern first, the values, motivations, even the aesthetics of an enculturated ape cannot be meaningfully shared with a device that shares nothing of our embodied physical (“phenomenological”) experience (Bryson, 2008; Claxton, 2015; Dennett, 2017). Nothing we build from metal and silicon will ever share our phenomenology as much as a rat or cow, and few see cows or rats as viable vessels of our posterity.

Taxing robots and extending human life via AI are ideas with populist appeal. Unfortunately, both are based on ignorance about the nature of intelligence

Further, the idea that substantiating a human mind in digital technology—even were that possible—would make it immortal or even increase its lifespan is ludicrous. Digital formats have a mean lifetime of no more than five years (Lawrence et al., 2000; Marshall et al., 2006). The fallacy here is again to mistake computation for a form of mathematics. While mathematics really is pure, eternal, and certain, that is because it is also not real—it is not manifest in the physical world and cannot take actions. Computation in contrast is real. As described earlier, computation takes time, space, and energy (Sipser, 2005). Space is needed for storing state (memory), and there is no permanent way to achieve such storage (Krauss and Starkman, 2000).

To return to the seemingly more practical idea of taxing AI entities, this again overlooks their lack of humanity. In particular, AI is not countable as humans are countable. This criticism holds also for Bill Gates’s support of taxing robots, even though he did not support legal personality (author pool, 2017). There is no equivalent of “horsepower” to measure the number of humans replaced by an algorithm. As just mentioned, in the face of accelerating innovation we can no longer keep track of the value even of transactions including human participants. When a new technology is brought in, we might briefly see how many humans are made redundant, but even this seems to reflect more the current economy than the actual value of labor replaced (Autor, 2015; Ford, 2015). When times are good, a company will retain and retrain experienced employees; when times are bad corporations will take the excuse to reduce headcount. Even if the initial shift in employment were indicative of initial “personpower” replaced, technologies quickly change the economies into which they are inserted, and the values of human labor rapidly change too.

It is essential to remember that artifacts are by definition designed. Within the limits of the laws of physics and computation, we have complete authorship over AI and robotics. This means that developers will be able to evade tax codes in ways inconceivable to legislators used to value based on human labor. The process of decomposing a corporation into automated “e-persons” would enormously magnify the present problems of the over-extension of legal personhood such as the shell corporations used for money laundering. The already restricted sense in which it is sensible to consider corporations to be legal persons would be fully dissolved if there are no humans employed by the synthetic entity (Solaiman, 2017; Bryson et al., 2017).

The Next Ten Years: Remediations and Futures

To stress again as at the beginning of Section 3, AI has been and is an incredible force of both economic growth and individual empowerment. We are with it able to know, learn, discover, and do things that would have been inconceivable even fifty years ago. We can walk into a strange city not knowing the language yet find our way and communicate. We can take advantage of education provided by the world’s best universities in our own homes, even if we are leading a low-wage existence in a developing economy (Breslow et al., 2013). Even in the developing world, we can use the village smartphone to check the fair prices of various crops, and other useful information like weather predictions, so even subsistence farmers are being drawn out of extreme poverty by ICT. The incredible pace of completion of the Human Genome Project is just one example of how humanity as a whole can benefit from this technology (Adams et al., 1991; Schena et al., 1996).

Nevertheless, the concerns highlighted above need to be addressed. I will here make suggestions about each, beginning with the most recently presented. I will be brief here, since, as usual, knowledge of solutions only follows from identification of problems, and the identifications above are not yet agreed but only proposed. In addition, some means for redressing these issues have already been suggested, but I go into further and different detail here.

Employment and Social Stability

I have already in Section 3.4 dismissed the idea that making AI legal persons would address the problems of employment disruption or wealth inequality we are currently experiencing. In fact, e-personhood would almost certainly increase inequality by shielding companies and wealthy individuals from liability, at the cost of the ordinary person. We have good evidence now that wealthy individual donors can lead politicians to eccentric, extremist position-taking (Barber, 2016) which can lead to disastrous results when coupled with increasing pressure for political polarization and identity politics. It is also important to realize that not every extremely wealthy individual necessarily reveals the level of their wealth publicly.

E-personhood would almost certainly increase inequality by shielding companies and wealthy individuals from liability, at the cost of the ordinary person

In democracies, another correlate of periods of high inequality and high polarization is very close elections, even where candidates might otherwise not seem evenly matched. This, of course, opens the door to (or at least reduces the cost of) manipulation of elections, including by external powers. Person (2018) suggests weak countries may be practicing “subtractive balancing” against stronger ones, by disrupting elections and through them governance abilities and therefore autonomy, in an effort to reduce power differentials in favor of the weaker nation. If individuals or coalitions of individuals are sufficiently wealthy to reduce the efficacy of governments, then states also lose their autonomy, including the stability of their borders.

War, anarchy, and their associated instability is not a situation anyone should really want to be in, though those who presently profit from illegal activity might think otherwise. Everyone benefits from sufficient stability to plan businesses and families. The advent of transnational corporations has been accompanied by a substantial increase in the number and power of other transnational organizations. These may be welcome if they help coordinate cooperation on transnational interests, but it is important to realize that geography will always be a substantial determiner of many matters of government. How well your neighbor’s house is protected from fire, whether their children are vaccinated or well educated, will always affect your quality of life. Fresh water, sewage, clean air, protection from natural disasters, protection from invasion, individual security, access to transport options—local and national governments will continue to play an extremely important role in the indefinite future, even if some functions are offloaded to corporations or transnational governments. As such, they need to be adequately resourced.

A teleprompter shows a “virtual student” at an MIT class being recorded for online courses in April 2013, Cambridge, Massachusetts
A teleprompter shows a “virtual student” at an MIT class being recorded for online courses in April 2013, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I recommended in Section 3.4 that one possible solution to the impact on ICT on in- equality is to shift priority from documenting and taxing income to documenting and taxing wealth. The biggest problem with this suggestion may be that it requires redistribution to occur internationally, not just nationally, because the richest corporations per Internet9 are in only one country, though certainly for those outside China—and increasingly for those inside—their wealth derives from global activity. Handling this situation will require significant policy innovations. Fortunately, it is in the interest of nearly all stakeholders, including leading corporations, to avoid war and other destructive social and economic instability. The World Wars and financial crises of the twentieth century showed that this was especially true for the extremely affluent, who at least economically have the most to lose (Milanovic, 2016; Scheidel, 2017), though of course do not often lose their lives.

I particularly admire the flexible solutions to economic hardship that Germany displayed during the recent recession, where it was possible for corporations to partially lay off employees, who then received partial welfare and free time (Eichhorst and Marx, 2011, p. 80). This allowed individuals to retrain while maintaining for a prolonged period a standard of living close to their individual norms; it also allowed companies to retain valued employees while they pivoted business direction or just searched for liquidity. This kind of flexibility should be encouraged, with both governments and individuals retaining economic capacity to support themselves through periods of crisis. In fact, sufficient flexibility may prevent periods of high change from being periods of crisis.

Weak countries may be practicing “subtractive balancing” against stronger ones, by disrupting elections and through them governance abilities and therefore autonomy, in an effort to reduce power differentials in favor of the weaker nation

If we can reduce inequality, I believe the problems of employment will also reduce, despite any increase in the pace of change. We are a fabulously wealthy society, and can afford to support individuals at least partially as they retrain. We are also fantastically innovative. If money is circulating in communities, then individuals will find ways to employ each other, and to perform services for each other (Hunter et al., 2001; Autor, 2015). Again, this may already be happening, and could account for the decreased rate of change some authors claim to detect in society (for example, Cowen, 2011). A great number of individuals may continue finding avenues of self- and (where successful) other employment in producing services within their own communities, from the social, such as teaching, policing, journalism, and family services, to the aesthetic, such as personal, home, and garden decoration, and the provision of food, music, sports, and other communal acts.

The decision about whether such people are able to live good enough lives that they can benefit from the advantages of their society is a matter of economic policy. We would want any family to be able, for example, to afford a week’s holiday in the nearest large city, or to have their children experience social mobility, for example getting into the top universities in their chosen area purely based on merit. Of course, we expect in this century universal and free access to health care, and primary and secondary education. People should be able to live with their families but also not need to commute for enormous portions of their day; this requires both distributed employment opportunities and excellent, scalable (and therefore probably public) transportation infrastructure.

If we can reduce inequality, I believe the problems of employment will also reduce, despite any increase in the pace of change. We are a fabulously wealthy society, and can afford to support individuals at least partially as they retrain

The level of investment in such infrastructure depends in part on the investment both public and private in taxation, and also on how such wealth is spent. Historically we have in some periods spent a great deal on the destruction of others’ infrastructure and repair of one’s own due to warfare. Now, even if we avoid open ballistic warfare, we must face the necessity of abandoning old infrastructure that is no longer viable due to climate change, and investing in other locations. Of course, this offers a substantial opportunity for redistribution, particularly into some currently economically depressed cities, as was shown by Roosevelt’s New Deal, which substantially reduced inequality in the USA well before World War II (Wright, 1974; McCarty et al., 2016).

I am with those who do not believe the universal basic income is a great mechanism of redistribution, for several reasons. First, many hope to fund it by cutting public services, but these may well be increasingly needed as increasing numbers of people cannot deal with the technical and economic complexities of a world of accelerating change. Second, I have seen far too many standing safely in the middle of the road telling television cameras that “the government has never done anything for me,” ignorant of massive investment in their education, security, and infrastructure. I think a basic income would easily become as invisible and taken for granted as trash collection and emergency services apparently are.

But, most importantly, I would prefer redistribution to reinforce the importance of local civic communities, that is, to circulate through employment, whether direct or as freelancers and customers. AI and ICT make it easy to bond with people from all over the world, or indeed with entertaining fantasies employing AI technology that are not actually human. But our neighbors’ well-being has enormous impacts on our own and are in many senses shared, through the quality of water, air, education, fire and other emergency services, and of course personal security. The best neighborhoods are connected through knowledge and personal concern, that is, localized friendships.

One effective mechanism of increasing redistribution is just the increase of minimum wages (Lee, 1999; Schmitt, 2013). Even if this is only done for government employees, it has knock-on effects for the rest of employers as they compete for the best people, and, of course, also gives the advantage of having better motivation for good workers to contribute to society through civil service. Although this mechanism has been attacked for a wide variety of reasons (for example, Meyer, 2016), the evidence seems fairly good for positive impacts overall.

Privacy, Liberty, and Innovation

Stepping back to the coupled problems of privacy and individual autonomy, we hit an area for which predictions are more difficult or at least more diverse. It is clear that the era of privacy through obscurity is over, as we now have more information and more means to filter and understand information than ever before, and this is unlikely to be changed by anything short of a global disaster eliminating our digital capacity. Nevertheless, we have long been in the situation of inhabiting spaces where our governments and neighbors could in theory take our private property from us, but seldom do except by contracted agreement such as taxation (Christians, 2009). Can we arrive at a similar level of control over our personal data? Can we have effective privacy and autonomy in the information era? If not, what would be the consequences?

First, it should be said that any approach to defending personal data and protecting citizens from being predicted, manipulated, or outright controlled via their personal data requires strong encryption and cybersecurity—without back doors. Every back door in cybersecurity has been exploited by bad actors (Abelson et al., 2015). Weak cybersecurity should be viewed as a significant risk to the AI and digital economy, particularly the Internet of Things (IoT). If intelligent or even just connected devices cannot be trusted, they will and should not be welcome in homes or workplaces (Weber, 2010; Singh et al., 2016).

Many thinkers on the topic of technologically mediated privacy have suggested that data about a person should be seen not as an asset of the person but as part of that person—an extension of an individual’s identity. As such, personal data cannot be owned by anyone but the person to whom it refers; any other use is by lease or contract which cannot be extended or sold onward without consent (Gates and Matthews, 2014; Crabtree and Mortier, 2015). This would make personal data more like your person; if it and therefore you are violated, you should have recourse to the law. There are a variety of legal and technological innovations being developed in order to pursue this model; however, given both the ease of access to data and the difficulty of proving such access, data may be far more difficult to defend than physical personal property (Rosner, 2014; Jentzsch, 2014). Fortunately, at least some governments have made it part of their job to defend the data interests of their citizens (for example, the GDPR, Albrecht, 2016; Danezis et al., 2014). This is for excellent reasons, since, as described above, there are both political and economic consequences of foreign extraction of data wealth and manipulation of individual political preferences and other behavior based on those individual’s social-media profiles.

Many thinkers on the topic of technologically mediated privacy have suggested that data about a person should be seen not as an asset of the person but as part of that person—an extension of an individual’s identity

The best situated entities to defend our privacy are governments, presumably through class-action lawsuits of at least the most egregious examples of violation of personal data. Note that such courses of action may require major innovations of international law or treaties, since some of the most prominent allegations of manipulation involve electoral outcomes for entire countries. For example, the UK’s Brexit vote has in the first two years since the referendum (and before any actual exit of the EU) cost the country £23 billion in lost tax revenue, or £44 million a week (Morales, 2018). As mentioned earlier, the Brexit vote is alleged to have been influenced by known AI algorithms, which have been shown to have been funded through foreign investment (ICO, 2018). Ironically, achieving compensation for such damage would almost certainly require international collaboration.

Unfortunately, governments do not always have their citizens’ interests at heart, or, at least, not always all of their citizens’ interests. Indeed, globally in the twentieth century, one was far more likely to be killed by one’s own government than by any foreign actor (Valentino, 2004). More recently, China has been using the surveillance system that was supposed to keep its citizens safe to destroy the lives and families of over a million of its citizens by placing them in reeducation camps for the crime of even casually expressing their Muslim identity (Human Rights Watch, 2018; Editorial Board, 2018). More generally, if governments fear whistle blowing, dissent, or even just shirk the responsibility for guaranteeing dignity and flourishing for all those in their territory, then they can and often will suppress and even kill those individuals. It is extremely dangerous when a government views governing a group of people within its borders as more cost or trouble than their collective potential value for labor, security, and innovation is worth. Aggravating this grave threat, we have both the promise and the hype of intelligent automation as a new, fully ownable and controllable source of both labor and innovation. The inflated discourse around AI increases the risk that a government will (mis)assess the value of human lives to be lower than the perceived costs of maintaining those lives.

We cannot know the sure outcome of the current trajectories, but where any sort of suppression is to be exercised, we can readily expect that AI and ICT will be the means for monitoring and predicting potential troublemakers. China is alleged to be using face-recognition capacities not only to identify individuals, but to identify their moods and attentional states both in reeducation camps and in ordinary schools. Students and perhaps teachers can be penalized if students do not pay attention, and prisoners can be punished if they do not appear happy to comply with their (re)education. ICT systems able to detect and inform teachers to adjust lectures and material toward students’ attention and comprehension are also being pitched for classrooms in the West, and are core to personalized AI instruction outside of conventional classrooms. Presumably similar systems are also being developed and probably applied for other sorts of work (for example, Levy, 2015).

The inflated discourse around AI increases the risk that a government will (mis)assess the value of human lives to be lower than the perceived costs of maintaining those lives

If we allow such trends to carry on, we can expect societies that are safer—or at least more peaceful on the streets—more homogenous, less innovative, and less diverse. More people have the means and economic wherewithal to move between countries now than ever before, so we might hope that countries that truly produce the best quality of life including governance and individual protection will be attractors to those who care about personal liberty. We may also hope that with the combined power of those immigrants and their extant citizens’ labor and innovation, these countries may come to be able to protect not only themselves but others. We have already seen the EU do such protection by setting standards of AI ethics such as the GDPR, and of course the United Nations is working with instruments such as the Paris Agreement to protect us all from climate change. In such well-governed and flourishing societies, we would expect to see perhaps an increase rather than a decrease in present levels of liberty, as we come to recognize the problems arising from the surveillance we already practice, for example in micromanaging our children’s personal time (Lee et al., 2010; Bryson, 2015).

Unfortunately for this optimistic vision of pools of well-being spreading from well-governed countries, in practice technology is increasingly being used or being threatened to be used for blocking any cross-border migration except by the most elite (Miller, 2017). Besides genocide and mass killings, another historic trend often observed in wars and political revolutions (for example, Nazi-occupied Poland, cold-war Czechoslovakia, the Iranian Revolution, Stalin’s USSR, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, China’s Cultural Revolution, present-day Saudi Arabia) is the displacement or even execution of not only dissidents but all and any intelligentsia. The effort to maintain control is often seen as requiring the elimination of any potential innovative leadership, even though precisely such leadership may be necessary to keep people healthy and therefore civil society stable (King and Zeng, 2001), not to mention maintaining the technological progress necessary to stay abreast in any arms race (Yan, 2006). Such movements tend to fail only after protracted suffering, and often only after having persisted long enough to make clear the damage of their policies to the country’s international competitiveness. AI makes the identification and isolation of any such targeted group—or even individuals with target attitudes—spectacularly easy. Only if we are able to also innovate protections against corrupt, selfish, or otherwise dangerous governance can we protect ourselves from losing the diversity and liberty of our societies, and therefore the security of us all.

Again, the capacity for AI to be used for good governance leading to fairer and stronger societies is very real and widely being developed. For example, AI is used to reduce financial crime, fraud, and money laundering, protecting individuals, societies, and governments from undue and illegal influence (Ngai et al., 2011). This is sensible and a part of ordinary contractual understandings of the duties of financial service providers and, indeed, governments. It may also be ethical for citizens to be “nudged” by their devices or other agencies into behaviors they have consciously chosen and explicitly expressed a desire for, such as exercise or sleep regimes. But it is important to recognize the massively increased threats of both explicit duress and implicit misleading that accompanies the massive increase of knowledge and therefore power that derive from AI. AI therefore increases the urgency of investment in research and development in the humanities and social sciences, particularly the political sciences and sociology. I therefore now turn to the problem of regulating AI.

Individual, Corporate, and Regulatory Responsibility for AI

To begin the discussion of responsibility in an age of AI, I want to return briefly to emphasize again the role of design and architectures on AI. Again, perhaps because of the misidentification of intelligent with human, I have sometimes heard even domain experts from influential organizations claim that one or another trait of AI is inevitable. There is no aspect of AI more inevitable than slavery or the hereditary rights of monarchy. Of course, both of these still persist in some places, but despite their economic benefits to those formerly in power, they have been largely eradicated. Similarly, we can regulate at least legal commercial products to mandate safe or at least transparent architectures (Boden et al., 2011). We can require—as again the European Commission recently has—that decisions taken by machines be traceable and explainable (Goodman and Flaxman, 2016).

Maintaining human accountability for AI systems does not have to mean that we must (or can) account for the value of every weight in a machine-learned neural network, or the impact of every individual instance of data used in training. Not only is this impractical, it is not the standard or means by which we currently hold organizations accountable. A company is not responsible for the synaptic organization of its accounts’ brains; it is responsible for the state of its accounts. Introducing AI into a corporate or governance process actually changes little with respect to responsibility. We still need to be able to characterize our systems well enough to recognize whether they are behaving as intended (Liu et al., 2017). This is doable, and it should be encouraged (Bryson and Theodorou, 2019).

Encouraging responsibility entails ensuring we continue maintaining accountability (Santoni de Sio and van den Hoven, 2018). One simple way to do this is to educate governments and prosecutors that software systems have much the same liability issues as any other manufactured artifact—if they are misused, it is the fault of the owner; if they cause harm when being appropriately used, they are at fault and the manufacturer is likely liable unless they can prove due diligence and exceptional circumstance. The mere fact that part of the system is autonomous does not alter this fact, just as a bank can be held accountable for errors generated by its accountants or customers where their bank’s systems should have caught or constrained such errors. There are certainly challenges here, particularly because so many applications of AI technology are in transnational contexts, but organizations such as the EU, UN, and OECD are looking to be able to coordinate the efforts of nations to protect their citizens.

Of course, AI systems are not exactly like more deterministic systems, but exaggerating the consequences of those differences creates problems. Bad ideas can be hidden by the “smoke and mirrors” of the confusion generated by AI around identity and moral agency (Bryson, 2018). One concerning trend in AI governance is the trend for value alignment as a solution to difficult questions of science generally, and AI ethics in particular. The idea is that we should ensure that society leads and approves of where science or technology go (Soares and Fallenstein, 2014). This may sound very safe and democratic, but it is perhaps better seen as populist. Speaking first to science: science is a principal mechanism enabling society to accurately perceive its context. In contrast, governance is how a society chooses between potential actions. Popular sentiment cannot determine what is true about nature; it can only determine what policies are easiest to deploy. To limit a society’s capacity to perceive to only the things it wants to know would be to blind that society (Caliskan et al., 2017, see the final discussion). Similarly, the outcomes of policy are highly influenced by public sentiment, but certainly not determined by it. Asking the public what it wants from AI is like asking them which science-fiction film they would most like to see realized—there is no guarantee they will choose one that is feasible, let alone truly desirable in protracted detail. While the public must through government determine its economic and political priorities, actual progress is almost never achieved by referendum. Rather, governance almost always comes down to informed negotiations between a limited number of expert negotiators, supported by a larger but still limited number of domain experts.

Even given the vast resources available through exploiting computation and AI, it is likely that human negotiators will always be the best determiners of policy. This is partly because we as citizens can identify with human representatives, thus establishing trust and investment in the negotiated outcomes. But more importantly, human representatives can be held to account and persuaded in ways that AI never can be. We cannot intentionally design systems to be as centered on social outcomes as human or indeed any social animal’s intelligence has evolved to be. We cannot do this by design, because design by its nature is a decomposable process, whereas evolution has repeatedly discovered that concern for social standing must be an inextricable part of an individual’s intelligence for a species reliant on social strategies for its survival. Thus our entire system of justice relies on dissuasion to do with isolation, loss of power or social standing. We cannot apply such standards of justice to machines we design, and we cannot trace accountability through machines we do not carefully design (Bryson et al., 2017; Bryson and Theodorou, 2019).

One concerning trend in AI governance is the trend for value alignment as a solution to difficult questions of science generally, and AI ethics in particular

Finally, some have expressed concern that it is impossible to maintain regulation in the face of AI because of the rapid rate of change AI entails. It is true that individual humans have limits in their capacities, including on how quickly we can respond. Similarly, legislation can only be written at a particular pace. Latencies are, in fact, deliberately built into the legislative process to ensure the pace of change is not too high for business and personal planning (Holmes, 1988; Cowen, 1992; Ginsburg, 2005; Roithmayr et al., 2015). Therefore legislation alone cannot be expected to keep up with the accelerating pace of change brought on by AI and ICT. I have previously suggested that one mechanism for forging sensible policy is to have domain experts working through professional organizations describe systems of standards (Bryson and Winfield, 2017). The role of government is then reduced to monitoring those efforts and lending enforcement to their outcomes. The arguments I have made above (and in Bryson and Theodorou, 2019) might be seen as a generalization of this principle. Here we are saying that we do not need to change legislation at all, simply hold organizations that build or exploit AI to account for the consequences for their systems’ actions by the ordinary and established means of tracing accountability. It is then these organizations who will need to do the innovation on accountability in lock step with their other innovation, so that they can demonstrate that they have always followed due diligence with their systems.


Artificial intelligence is already changing society at a faster pace than we realize, but at the same time it is not as novel or unique in human experience as we are often led to imagine. Other artifactual entities, such as language and writing, corporations and governments, telecommunication and oil, have previously extended our capacities, altered our economies, and disrupted our social order—generally though not universally for the better. The evidence that we are on average better off for our progress is ironically perhaps the greatest threat we currently need to master: sustainable living and reversing the collapse of biodiversity.

Nevertheless AI—and ICT more generally—may well require radical innovations in the way we govern, and particularly in the way we raise revenue for redistribution. We are faced with transnational wealth transfers through business innovations that have outstripped our capacity to measure or even identify the level of income generated. Further, this new currency of unknowable value is often personal data, and personal data gives those who hold it the immense power of prediction over the individuals it references.

But beyond the economic and governance challenges, we need to remember that AI first and foremost extends and enhances what it means to be human, and in particular our problem-solving capacities. Given ongoing global challenges such as security and sustainability, such enhancements promise to continue to be of significant benefit, assuming we can establish good mechanisms for their regulation. Through a sensible portfolio of regulatory policies and agencies, we should continue to expand—and also to limit, as appropriate—the scope of potential AI application.


I would like to acknowledge my collaborators, particularly Karine Perset for recruiting me to work on these topics for the OECD and for many good conversations, my (recent) PhD students Andreas Theodorou and Rob Wortham, Alan Winfield with whom some of this content has been reworked and extended to consider the role of professional societies (see Bryson and Winfield, 2017), Karen Croxson of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, and Will Lowe, particularly for feedback on the sections concerning international relations. Thanks to the OECD for permission to reuse some of the material above for academic contexts such as this volume. I also thank the AXA Research Fund for part-funding my work on AI ethics from 2017–20.



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