Artificial Intelligence vs Democracy

Run to the hills, the computers are coming!

Whether you’re excited about the growing potential of AI to change our world, or deeply concerned about it, you’re also probably getting tired of hearing about it by now. There’s been a ton of analysis about whether or not a computer will take your job (the answer is both yes and no), or whether computers can really think and if we should give them moral status; and prompts about related topics, such as the question of what is truly art, how should copyright rules change, and what does it mean to be truly human if non-humans can do what we do?

Doing the Thinking

Yesterday I listened to the last in a great series about AI from Freakonomics Radio, which explored the use of AI to help entrepreneurs flesh out ideas for their businesses. I listened as they used ChatGP4 to bounce around ideas about a hypothetical stationery store in Vermont, and in a few minutes they had accomplished a level of ideation, a fancy word for idea-generating and clarifying, that would otherwise have taken several people and/or several hours or days. The important point in the episode is that the AI didn’t do this for them; it was a process in which they actively engaged with the concepts, while the AI served as an advanced sounding board that could instantly provide relevant information to help them validate ideas. Used properly, AI doesn’t do the work for you; it just simplifies the work. Because the work itself — the process of ideating — is valuable.

To illustrate that: imagine if you could enter a prompt into the AI (say, “run a stationery store in Vermont”), and the AI did all of the thinking work for you, spitting out a step-by-step process for you to follow to run your business. Would it even feel like it was your business? Would you have the knowledge you need to answer in-depth questions about stationery, if you let the AI do all of the thinking for you? Would you feel comfortable with the many processes of running a business, and feel a sense of responsibility for and pride in that business? Or would you just have a computer as a boss in your own enterprise?

You need to process all of that information yourself if you want to be successful and satisfied as a business owner. The thinking work is essential, and AI can’t do it for us. But as a tool to help with that process, AI could be incredibly powerful for a LOT of people who would otherwise probably never go through the process. Not everyone can go get a business degree, and not everyone even knows where to begin asking questions about what it takes to launch a business. Helping people go through that process on their own could be revolutionary.

Thinking Together

Now consider the process that a municipality goes through in order to put together a plan for our collective future. First of all, we have an election to collectively choose residents to represent us on a council; the election itself costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to run, even in a small town (much more in big cities). And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the ongoing costs associated with having councillors to make decisions on our behalf: they get paid (large amounts in large cities, small amounts in small towns), need support staff and facilities, accrue expenses, etc. Then every time the council makes a decision on the behalf of the public, that meeting needs to be publicly accessible, so we livestream it, record it, and host it in a public setting. And still, we go out of our way to get public participation: in our recent Strategic Plan process we convened a small committee in order to plan the exercises, hired a facilitator and a caterer, and hosted four public engagement sessions to hear from the public, whose feedback was then analyzed and reported upon to staff. That report was then deliberated upon in a Committee of the Whole meeting, went back to the Strategic Plan committee, then back to staff, and was then brought to a Council meeting where it was finally approved. Ultimately the process involved about a hundred people, dozens of hours, and thousands of dollars.

Someone sitting down with an AI could have gotten a similar document, virtually for free, in minutes. But the document isn’t the point. Like with the entrepreneurial example above, the thinking is a big part of the point: council, staff, and members of the public can all take pride in and responsibility for our Strategic Plan, because we did the thinking work that produced it. But for municipalities, it’s also really critical that we did this work together, and that’s where we need to be careful about how we use AI.

If the Mayor had decided to do the work themselves, even using AI to help them do it quickly and effectively, they might feel that ownership over the outcome, but probably nobody else would. And it’s just as important that municipal staff, councillors, and regular residents all feel some of that same ownership and engagement. Because this is our community, not just the Mayor’s.

An Engaged Community

It’s hard to quantify just how valuable an engaged community is – and maybe that’s why not many seem to try. I’m not sure if we take it for granted that we all belong here, or if we maybe don’t even expect it. Our society seems to be increasingly polarized, and with so much of our lives lived online, we can more easily find digital community than interaction with our actual neighbours. The idea of having a unified municipality with a common sense of our collective future, a sense that we can understand and rely on each other as we move forward together, is not something we can take for granted. It requires us doing the work of imagining that future and planning for it, and it requires that we do it together.

I’m not worried that AI will undermine our democracy. We’ve managed that ourselves. Unless we are willing to engage in the relational and intellectual work of coming together to invest in one another and go through the process of building our future, our town will just be a place that we live, nothing more.

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