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Artificial Intelligence and Populism: How to avoid a catastrophe? | View

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By Radu Magdin

Even if we are true believers in the power of technology, in the benefits of creative destruction, we should not kid ourselves: the fourth industrial revolution, if left untamed, could increase inequality, weaken the social fiber of our society, and put under threat the core of democracy and peace.

Radu Magdin Strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova

It is uncontroversial to say that technology has changed humanity for the better. Driven by creativity and resoluteness, the first three industrial revolutions allowed people to advance and to live better and more meaningful lives.

Now as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, becoming more integrated and more dependent on technology, it is worth taking a pause and asking how changes and disruptions such as the spread of the artificial intelligence (AI) will be understood and assessed, not only by people as consumers but by humans as voters in democratic contexts.

Progress is only one of the potential outcomes, and it will prevail provided that we will focus on those aspects that will serve us all, making our lives better and enhancing social cohesion. The AI leaders from the business world will have to assume responsibility and play their part in defusing the growing tension between technology disruption and electoral politics.

If not, as in the case of the migration crisis where there was a lack of a strong proactive narrative, demonization and protest against implementation will follow. It's easier to play on fears than on hope, particularly in the context of a lack of a substantial continued campaign for progress.

Technology is more than a lens one employs to understand and shape reality; it has become a meta-framework whose impact can only be partialled-out after extensive effort. However, the ubiquity of technology means that its salience will have consequences and spillovers that 20 years ago were unimaginable.

If we are to talk about artificial intelligence, the starting point is that AI is salient and, even more importantly, it is increasingly polarising and political. AI is changing the world as we know it and this cannot happen without effects; whether we are talking jobs, health, military applications and competition between the great powers.

One of the major mistakes we make when discussing innovation and technology is to treat these concepts uncritically, without considering both their potential to change the world for the better and the downsides and the negative aspects of disruption. If this is not clear to you, just imagine what will happen to truck drivers once we embrace driverless cars. Are we that sure that retraining and reemploying those made redundant by these evolutions will be easy?

If the fourth industrial revolution is to be successful and to work for everyone, then this requires careful planning and inclusive dialogue, aspects that are the natural consequence of viewing AI from both business and public policy perspectives. It also needs a permanent campaign assumed by a coalition for wise technological progress. Otherwise, AI will be defined by others before it gets to roll out its own red carpet.

Fear of change and resistance to change are not new phenomena. However, during past centuries, they have been marginal in preventing evolution. The populists of this world - out of political opportunism or conviction - seek to make them a central part of the narrative of a new type of politics. Both in developed and developing democracies, political entrepreneurs are seeking to take advantage of the anxiety of those left behind.

Even if we are true believers in the power of technology, in the benefits of creative destruction, we should not kid ourselves: the fourth industrial revolution, if left untamed, could increase inequality, weaken the social fiber of our society, and put under threat the core of democracy and peace.

Populism could win if we take a step back and wait for the obvious positive aspects of technology to naturally happen and to trickle down to those with less skill and capital. As recently mentioned during the ‘How To Web’ conference in Bucharest, one has to look at and (re)frame the issue of control (who controls who) for humanity's peace of mind.

AI will bring about more automation which means that blue-collar jobs will continue to disappear; manufacturing, as we know it, will become a relic. What have been portrayed as middle-class jobs will shrink even further and the polarisation on the job market will only increase.

On the one hand, we will have the very specialised, the sought-after jobs and on the other hand, we will find those with less skills who will be caught in temporary, low-paid and precarious jobs. We cannot sweep this potential scenario under the carpet. Solutions for the here and know will have to be devised.

This is why the discussion about universal basic income makes sense and precisely why it has been initiated by those who have benefited the most from the explosion of the online products and services. However, this should not be seen as a final point, but rather as the start of a fruitful conversation. In any AI (r)evolution, society as a whole has to be a winner.

AI and globalisation are strongly related. If the first two ages of globalisation have meant the free movement of goods and of ideas, we currently see a strong pushback against the free movement of people. In Europe and the US, the discussion about immigration and refugees is a case in point. Free trade is under attack, especially because the coalition of the left-behinds has grown stronger and has attracted the attention of parties and political players.

This is the context in which we operate and the challenge will be to fight against populism by addressing exactly the issues that have transformed populism into being such an attractive choice for both mainstream parties and millions and millions of voters. Again and again we have seen that the populists are endowed with political rhetoric and mobilising phrases. What they lack is the ability to come up with solutions to problems that are complex and complicated.

Mainstream politicians cannot find a solution on their own. It is the task of a responsible business world to make the transition towards the fourth industrial revolution as smooth as possible, and this means primarily ensuring a normal relation with democratic norms and principles and a strategic conversation with stakeholders. Ignoring this hard-core political dimension would throw our liberal order in crisis (if the one we are currently experiencing is not bad enough) and will only increase instability.

What is to be done? How should we approach the task of working towards a compromise if not towards a natural connection between electoral politics and the spread of AI? Brainstorming should happen on a global scale - and it has to be not only on the Davos agenda in 2019 but also at the core of the transformations happening at the intersection of the state and the society. "Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution" will face plenty of hot potatoes; rebuilding and reframing Globalization is a daunting task, not to mention winning hearts and minds for gigantic faster-than-expected technological change. So, Davos 2019 can be a smart salvo in a longer and more comprehensive global campaign.

As for my take on this herculean endeavour, I dare to put forward seven general principles that, in my opinion, would potentially help (or save from the populist surge) the companies that are driving the AI revolution, and progress per se. They are as follows:

1. Precision – know what happens with your algorithm and know what kind of consequences it will trigger.

2. Transparency – be open and talk about changes and disruption in a manner that is credible, consistent, and reflects reality.

3. Empathy – be in direct contact with those you affect and own up to your product/service.

4. Critical thinking and suspicion – encourage inquiry and be prompt to answer.

5. Strategise – build scenarios, present outcomes and the embeddedness of strategies (being part of a community is essential).

6. Democratise - avoid centralisation, obsession of control and monopoly of the narrative.

7. Cooperate - help decision-makers and politicians explain all these massive changes.

Otherwise, realistically speaking in the long term, the populist elements that are part of the democratic core will cause massive disruptions for entrepreneurs. Making AI transformations easily palatable to voters is what will make the difference between equitable transition and a revolution gone bad.

Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.

Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.