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In 1988, James Hansen, head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a US Senate committee: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Thirty-five years later, the US government is at last trying to do something about it. The political trajectory with artificial intelligence is similar. Alan Turing, the scientist who formulated the concept of AI, predicted in 1951: “At some stage . . . we should have to expect the machines to take control.” Only now is this notion entering mainstream political debate.
In short, democracies tend either to act too late, or quickly but stupidly. That’s suboptimal, especially as life speeds up. AI advances almost weekly, while viruses can cross the planet on a plane. Some people think the solution is autocracy. It’s true that dictators can act fast, but they generally act in their own interests. Overall, they have achieved even worse long-term outcomes than democracies. So how can we make democracies faster and smarter? Let’s start with how they typically handle problems:
Phase one: Only a few experts even realise there’s a problem. Take, for instance, two crises that worsened from the 1980s into the 2000s: climate change and income inequality. The one mainstream politician of those decades who banged on about climate, Al Gore, was often dismissed as a crank. Hardly any successful politicians mentioned inequality.
In the 2000s, start-ups such as Facebook and Uber began changing society before many politicians had heard of them. The academic paper that introduced the model behind ChatGPT in 2017 passed similarly unremarked.
Phase two: Ignorant public debate led by politicians, journalists and assorted under-informed noisemakers. That’s where the AI debate is now. In this stage, many people still deny the problem exists. Sometimes, precipitate action is taken during the period of ignorance. That happened when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and when Britons voted for Brexit.
Phase three: A long upskilling of the public debate. That began only after both the US invasions and Brexit. Once the decisions had been made, decision makers finally started absorbing information they should have known beforehand about, say, Afghan society, or the trade-offs between free movement and doing business with Europe. This collective upskilling often takes decades.
Phase four: A sophisticated majority agreement emerges on what should be done. Almost all political decision makers are now aware of the greenhouse effect. That doesn’t mean they will act — business interests or selfish voters might stop them — but it’s the essential first step. However, phase four has come too late. If only states had started the energy transition in 1988.
So how can democracies cut out phases two and three? How can they jump straight from expert awareness to informed action? A good case study was the response to Covid-19. Crucially, politicians allowed experts to lead the debate from the start. Boris Johnson, the UK’s low-information prime minister, would often introduce his scientific advisers in his pandemic press conferences and let them address the public. Experts aren’t always right, but they are right more often than ignoramuses. They are the cleverest elements in a stupid system.
Some people dismissed the expertise on Covid, but most accepted it. Of course, elected politicians rather than experts still had to make the decisions, but they weren’t acting in ignorance. So we went from life-saving lockdowns to vaccine rollouts in nine months. To institutionalise this kind of rapid response, we need to foreground expertise in political debate. In fact, we need experts to tell us what they think our political debates should be about.
That will require them to improve their communication skills. National broadcasters must privilege their views, and marginalise ignoramuses. And we’ll need better mechanisms for experts to steer government thinking. One model is the influential Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, made up of professors, which advises the government on strategic issues. Experts, after all, can think longer-term than elected politicians, or than companies that report quarterly financial results.
The other promising model is the citizens’ assembly. When Ireland was deciding whether to legalise abortion, it created an assembly of 99 ordinary people. They heard from 25 experts and reviewed 300 submissions from members of the public and interest groups. The assembly finally recommended legalisation. In 2018, a national referendum approved the proposal.
We can speed up political time.
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