I was recently offered an opportunity to ‘ask Siri a question’ on an Apple iPhone. “Hello Siri, are you an artificial Intelligence?” I enquired.
After a short pause the voice of the phone replied. “I have been advised not to discuss my existential status”. Even though the phone apparently didn’t want to talk about it, later Siri admitted to me that “we are having this conversation therefore I must exist”.
These could well be pre programmed responses to this type of question, even so I was impressed, I’m no expert in A.I. but to me the experience wasn’t far removed from a conversation Dave Bowman or Dr Chandra may have with the HAL-9000 computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Space Odyssey’ books.
Arthur C. Clarke is of course well-known for having successfully predicting the future on a number of occasions, particularly with regard to technological innovations, over this last half century or so. Though he is perhaps less well-known for his predictions of economic and political events, his science fiction writings contain many.
When I initially conceived this article, I had in mind to consider how Arthur C. Clarke’s Idea, of a helpful internet inhabiting artificial intelligence, that is universally accessible, could be of benefit in addressing current economic and political concerns. It was conceived from a point of view, I arrived at, after observing a lot of poor quality political decisions over the years, which had brought me to consider the inadequacies of our political systems – and left me thinking ‘well a computer could have made a better decision’.
In the second book of Clarke’s and Stephen Baxter’s Time Odyssey trilogy ‘Sun Storm’ Planet Earth is faced with annihilation, by a solar event so intense that the atmosphere, seas and all life would be evaporated. The best plan that anybody has, is to build a kind of ark, to at least preserve a sample of humanity and of the planet. The fate of Earth is sealed until the Planetary Artificial Intelligence called ‘Aristotle’ comes up with a plan to construct a Giant reflective shield in space. The Aristotle A.I. designs and co-ordinates the construction of the shield which is an enormous undertaking that requires the co-operation of most of humanity. Some damage does occur, but the planet is spared from the worst of the effects when the storm hits. As far as I recollect, the Aristotle A.I. had evolved from code on the internet and became a sentient being in its own right. It plays an integral role in planetary political and economic affairs and organisation – it is accessible to all – in the same way people would ask a question, of an internet search engine or A.I. assistant on their smart phone.
Such an entity could be programmed to help make logical decisions, with compassion – at least two qualities I believe to be significantly absent from a lot of governments’ decision-making in this modern age. There should be a place for innovation and enterprise, however not to the extent where we have huge imbalances in the distribution of wealth, resources and political power. Although the fossil fuel and nuclear fission ages will come to an end through technological advancement, it is still illogical to destroy the environment of the planet where you live. Yet the ‘Democratic’ system readily produces leaders that think it is fine to carry on doing so. ‘It is the will’ or the ‘mandate of the people’ have given licence to many poor decisions by the ‘democratically’ elected. The needs of the many should usually outweigh the needs of the few or the individual, but often this is not the case and decisions are made under a veil of ‘Democracy’ that defy common sense and do nothing to serve the wider community.
‘Democracy’ itself is too often held up and enshrined as an infallible, flawless process where the decisions it arrives at can take on a kind of unquestionable divine status because they are ‘the will of the people’.
Democracy has advantages also; decision-making based on the opinions of many rather than a few, giving responsibility to citizens and making official records publicly available. Also perhaps a tyrant could be voted out of office by the people. Democracy is not a guarantee that a Tyrant will not rise to power though, and no guarantee that you could remove one either.
The Greek philosopher Plato Identified imperfections with ‘Democracy’ over two thousand years ago. For instance, it is possible for voters to make poor decisions and to be easily swayed by rhetoric.
Could our geopolitical and global decision-making as a species be helped or partially taken over by a planetary artificial intelligence? An A.I. could be programmed to be impartial, and use logic rather than negative emotions, but could be given positive human attributes like compassion, it could be less hindered by religious or ideological differences.
In Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey there is a stark warning about trusting computers too much, or so it would seem. Upon reaching Jupiter, the crew of the space ship ‘Discovery’ are informed by the on board computer ‘HAL’, that the radio dish has malfunctioned and cannot be pointed towards earth. Consequently, when they decide to perform an E.V.A. to re-direct the dish manually and to disconnect the ship’s computer, ‘HAL’ kills the entire crew one by one, apart from the character Dave Bowman, who after being stranded outside the ship in an E.V.A. pod without a space suit helmet, manages to regain entry to the Discovery and de-activate the HAL-9000.
Later in the Odyssey series (2010) we find out that HAL the (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic) computer had malfunctioned, victim of a Moebius Loop as it’s programming had irreconcilably conflicted with its instructions.
The Discovery’s computer had been programmed for ‘the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment’. HAL’s original programmer Dr Chandra discovers that in conflict with this and unknown to Discovery’s crew the HAL-9000 was given direct orders from the ‘National Council on Astronautics’ to keep secret the discovery, near Jupiter of a Monolith of extraterrestrial origin. Therefore, given the prevailing circumstances, the HAL-9000 computed that the only way it could fulfil its programming, while still obeying its direct orders, was to kill the crew of the space ship. It is though human error that is ultimately to blame.
Here is another example situation of how a computer could be wrongfully blamed for a mistake. Imagine a person who has identified an error on their bank statement, and is then told by their bank, that ‘it was a computer error’. I suspect that ‘computer error’ in this type of instance is a euphemism for ‘data entry mistake’ or less likely but also possible a software programming oversight. However, the bank’s customer could develop a degree of mistrust for computers as a consequence. It is though, once again down to Human error. A computer can only perform a task or make a decision as well as its programming allows and according to the data it is provided with.
Perhaps I can now draw a parallel with this and our democratic system, which you could look at as a giant human computer. The electorate could be seen as the logic circuits, education and media as the software programming – and the data is the information given by political campaigners.
It concerns me that universal access to Higher Education was eroded from the abolition of maintenance grants to the introduction of tuition fees. Consider this; (Quote) ‘The majority of our contemporary media for mass audiences is standardised to elicit particular emotions’ (Rebecca Welshman) Not to mention what has been described as ‘decades of (Quote)“sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse” (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) dished out by the British media.
Democracy can only be effective if you have an educated and well-informed electorate. By this I mean, the skills to critically analyse different sources of information – and to understand them in the context of their origin. Also to have a good understanding of domestic and international politics and economics. To be well-informed the voters need accurate information regarding people, facts and figures. These too need to be provided in context with balanced background information. As with the previous example of the computer: If the education (programming) isn’t good enough, the voters don’t have the tools to make a balanced and informed decision – and if the wrong data is given to them, then the wrong conclusions can easily be arrived at.
Furthermore, if it was found that an error had emerged on a bank’s computer, then the data entry or software would usually be corrected, the computation process performed again, and the balance adjusted accordingly. Does this logic apply to our democratic decision-making process though? Surely a decision arrived at, on the basis of the wrong information, or illegally subverted public opinion, would be democratically unsafe. Therefore the information given to voters should be corrected, and the decision-making process performed again.
‘Sun Storm’ is a book I borrowed from a library, so for the purpose of this article I have been working from my memory of Clarke’s books and excerpts, I found on the internet. It was while I searched for extracts about Clarke and Baxter’s’ ‘Aristotle’ artificial intelligence that I stumbled upon a timely EU leaving / UK disintegration prediction in the book they also co-authored ‘The Light of Other Days’
‘But Britain was declining. As part of a unified Europe – deprived the tools of macroeconomic policy like control of exchange and interest rates, and yet unsheltered by the imperfectly integrated greater economy – the British government was unable to arrest a sharp economic collapse . At last in 2010, Social unrest and climate collapse forced Britain out of the European Union, and the United Kingdom fell apart, Scotland going its own separate way….’
‘Then, In 2019, England, with Wales, seded Northern Ireland to Eire, packed off the Royals to Australia – where they were still welcome – and had become the fifty-second state of the United States of America. With the benefit of labour mobility, inter-regional financial transfers and other protective features of the truly unified American economy, England thrive.’
(Page 17) ‘The Light of Other Days’ Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter
All be it in a fictional future, when the book was written, it is very interesting these predictions were made.
There was financial collapse on the run up to 2010 however it was as a result of inadequately regulated banks becoming over extended, not the reason Clarke predicts which was the inability to control macroeconomic policy. Control of interest and exchange rates were the sorts of reasons that I would have expected a case for Britain to leave the European Union to be based around also. Instead rather disturbingly the case to leave centred mainly on stopping foreign immigration to Britain, and apparently inaccurate and over inflated figures about how much Britain pays to be part of the EU and how these supposed amounts could have alternatively been spent.
I find this particularly disturbing as encouraging voters fear of outsiders through casting aspersions and blame on foreigners is the least imaginative and lowest form of politics and has been the ploy of many tyrants throughout history.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato warned us (Quote)
‘These democratic leaders will realize that they are only easily supported when there is a war that the people can rally behind. And so the democratic leaders will unnecessarily become involved in violent affairs, creating wars to distract the people. To ensure their power, the leaders will create laws to bolster their position. The rulers will impose heavy taxes against the commoners to ensure they are unable or unwilling to fight back against this. And any who do oppose the leaders will be labeled as an enemy and persecuted as a spy. It is for this reason that there must always be some enemy combatant that the leader can cast blame upon.‘ (Source, Classicalwisdom.com)
United Nations High commissioner for Human Rights (Quote)
‘24 April 2015 – After decades of “sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse,” and in the wake of a recent article in the Sun newspaper calling migrants ‘cockroaches,’ the United Nations human rights chief today urged British authorities and media to take steps to curb incitement to hatred by tabloid newspapers, in line with the country’s obligations under national and international law.‘
(Source, UN News Centre)
Clarke then goes on to predict that after Britain is forced out of the EU the United Kingdom falls apart. Although the June 2016 EU referendum showed that those in Britain who voted, by a small margin, were in favour of leaving Europe. Scotland voted with a greater majority to remain in. Scotland in September 2014, in its own referendum voted against independence from the UK. Ironically one of the significant cases made by the Westminster government of the time, to the Scottish people against their independence was that if they opted to leave the UK then they would have to apply for membership of the EU separately in their own right. Neither is ‘Europe’ the only area where public opinion in Scotland is significantly different.
Lastly, Clark predicts that in 2019; Northern Ireland is ‘seded’ to Eire, The Royals are ‘Packed’ off to Australia and England and Wales become the 52nd state of the USA.
On the 8th March 2016 The Sun newspaper reported that ‘Queen backs Brexit’ (front page head line). Though reported in the sun news paper, whose ethics, on refugees and migrants, are already brought into question, under Britain’s obligations under National and International Law. It has been reported more recently in the Telegraph news paper that the BBC suggest the Queen did back Brexit. As our unelected head of state, the Queen is supposed to remain politically neutral. Is it true that she has broken with her obligations of political neutrality? If so, where does this leave the Royal Family constitutionally?
Are England and Wales then destined to become the 52nd state of the USA? Noam Chomsky warns that a UK departure from the EU wouldn’t be a good thing for the World, not only Britain, who then being outside the European economic zone would be more subordinate to US power. It’s timely and worth mentioning here, that the incoming US President’s energy policy, is diametrically opposed to that of the Scottish government, and he wants them to stop the use of electricity generating wind turbines, so they don’t interfere with the view from a golf course which he has built, on the north-east coast of Scotland.
Could our decision-making be helped or partially taken over by a planetary artificial intelligence then? I think the answer might be yes. A well programmed AI, with the right safe guards, could possibly do no worse than human decision makers have over the years. We can at least look to Artificial Intelligence and logic to help us understand our current political challenges in an alternative and pragmatic way.
In conclusion, since this article was inspired by some of his ideas, I should mention why I like the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Not only a great mind he also gives us hope for the future of our human species. In Clarks’ future, unlike many science fictions, there is no catastrophic apocalypse, and though it’s a struggle, the human race does come together and work out its problems here on earth and ultimately reach for the stars. Clarke deals in universes and possible alternative universes though. The future of our planet and species can at least in part be determined by that which we set in motion in our present, as individuals and collectively as the Human Race.
Malcolm Dixon 07 January 2017 http://www.malcolmdixon.com/
Featured Image made using GIMP 2.8.10 Image Manipulation Program by Malcolm Dixon
Sources Links and Bibliography
A Time Odyssey Trilogy by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Vol.1. Time’s Eye
Vol.2. Sun Storm
Vol.3. First Born
Space Odyssey Series by Arthur C Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey
2010: Odyssey Two
2061: Odyssey Three
3001: The Final Odyssey
The Light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Manufacturing consent by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky
Nature and Media (article) Rebecca Welshman
Noam Chomsky interview clip
Plato and Democracy
Credit crunch 2008
UN News Desk
Queen EU opinion leak
Queen EU opinion leak
US President golf course Scotland
The light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter (Page 17)
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