“Artificial intelligence and information technology in general are not value neutral. In the hands of Chinese authorities, they become a weapon against civil rights, while in the city government of Paris they become a tool to promote democracy. But intrinsically, IT is anti-democratic. Today’s youth must figure out how to cleverly circumvent this tendency if we want to preserve our democracy,” writes Margo Loor, the Co-Founder and Technology Evangelist of Citizen OS for the MIHUS magazine.
Image by Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.
I teach public speaking and debating in high school. Many students have come to believe in language models over the past year. If you ask them a question or pose a problem, it will be typed into the ChatGPT window and the answer will be read from there, with the student believing that it is the best solution.
In fact, ChatGPT cannot solve problems for us, let alone democratically decide. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s too stupid. It’s a nice tool for just chatting or for creating some short texts, but those who try to do more serious work with it quickly encounter “artificial non-intelligence”.
I often need to edit texts transcribed from people’s conversations to make them more readable. I give ChatGPT a prompt to edit the transcriptions by following six editing rules. When I examine the results, I often see that a particular rule has not been followed. If I draw attention to it, I get a nice apology and a new result: sometimes all the rules are then followed, but other times some other rule is ignored in the new text.
If someone would like to see some simpler examples, I have documented several recent instances on my public Facebook wall in which ChatGPT could not solve a brain teaser designed for 5-year-old children (in fact, it immediately failed catastrophically), or it recommended that I consult someone more expert. AI technology is being developed quickly, but today’s models are too stupid for us to entrust democracy to them.
In fact, ChatGPT cannot solve problems for us, let alone democratically decide. There are two reasons for this. First, it's too stupid. It's a nice tool for just chatting or for creating some short texts, but those who try to do more serious work with it quickly encounter “artificial non-intelligence”
The speed of life in a speed of light
There is another, much more fundamental reason. Information technology is fast and, as we know, it is much faster at processing and transmitting information than people. The more technological a society becomes, the faster the pace of life. While browsing on Amazon yesterday, I saw that Neil deGrasse Tyson has written a book called Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry. He certainly got the title right because young people are in a hurry. The environment is overstimulating, FOMO is pushing back and the competition seems fierce. This pace is evident everywhere and not just for young people, although young people and their mental health, which lacks defence mechanisms, may take the biggest hit.
Have you noticed that people used to arrive 5-7 minutes early for physical meetings, have a coffee and sit down before the meeting started? Now in the age of e-meetings, people join the meeting exactly in the final seconds of the first minute. Most fundamentally, however, technology slows down the speed of life through money markets and news flow. Information moves around the planet at the speed of light, and financial markets, where the trading floor has long been closed, react algorithmically in real time. This speed radiates into all other spheres of life.
The problem is that democracy is not fast. News flow and money markets also push countries and governments to make quick decisions, to react quickly. However, democracy requires thinking, discussion and involvement, and these do not happen quickly. When we are forced to rush, we switch to our less intelligent decision-making processes, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman proved decisively in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
The problem is that democracy is not fast. News flow and money markets also push countries and governments to make quick decisions, to react quickly. However, democracy requires thinking, discussion and involvement, and these do not happen quickly.
I was present at a conference last year where a well-known Estonian technology entrepreneur proudly spoke about how quickly cryptocurrency regulation was created in Estonia. It seems to me that speed should hardly be a criterion for making laws. On the other hand, Model-Estonia Foundation, which last brought young people together for two days in January in order to learn and practise the working mechanisms of democracy, is on the right track. Democracy is not something you can organise very quickly by dragging an app on the screen of your smart device. It requires thinking, time, debate and discussion.
But the technological world and the people who are increasingly adapted to it, who grew up in it, demand their own. Where the “old” democracy seems too slow, ways to bypass it are being sought. For example, there are now various voting apps, such as VoteMe. In one of the argumentation skills training I conducted recently, instead of debating, one participant agitated several times: “What are we discussing here, let’s do it democratically and vote!” Voting is quick. This can be done on a screen. This is not democracy; done wrong it can be the tyranny of the majority. Voting may be part of the democratic process, but it does not replace the core of democracy, which is human thinking. First of all, everyone must think about society’s problems and then think about and discuss the issues with others. This must be followed by listening to the arguments of the various stakeholders, both majorities and minorities, and only then can you vote.
Democracy and technology – enemies or a tandem?
Democracy is in a good state in Estonia today. We have people’s assemblies, and the Tallinn Green Capital people’s assembly, for example, is just approaching. People actively use the right of popular initiative and join the participatory budgeting processes of local governments. The Estonian Debating Society teaches argumentation and debating skills to young people in many schools. The media freedom index is high. The Open Estonia Foundation supports an open society. We have CitizenOS, Opinion Festival, democracy.ee, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly and many others.
But in the world, democracy has its work cut out for it. Technology is fast and the pace of society’s life is increasing. Democracy in its current form is slow and this gap is widening. Metrics and indices show clearly that fewer and fewer countries are democratic, and this negative trend has been continuing for the past 10 years and longer. I was pleased to recently read about the pro-democracy demonstrations in Poland. This is much better than the situation in Hungary or any other country where the people have let the rulers usurp democracy without reacting. At the same time, the Arab Spring unfortunately showed us that steering a country in turmoil towards the path of democracy is one thing, but keeping democracy alive is something much more difficult.
I am neither opposing democracy nor technology; I want to live in a world where I have both. Both artificial intelligence and other information technologies will play an important role in the communication of communities and society in the open societies of the future. Democracy and technology must move forward together in tandem.
I don’t know exactly what shape that model will take. It has to be something crafty that takes the best of both and gets around the IT sector’s lust for speed. At the Citizen OS Foundation, we think about this every day. We are always happy when someone joins us and comes to think together with us. In the end, it is today’s young people who have to come up with this model and put it to work if they want both to live in a free, democratic society in the future and to enjoy the benefits of technological development.
* This article was originally written for and published in Estonia’s youth work online magazine MIHUS. The text has been slightly edited for the Citizen OS website by Meelika Hirmo.
* All examples of using ChatGPT in this article have been based on GPT-4.