Technologists Need to Consider the Political Disruptions Ahead

Technologists celebrate accelerating change.   For much of human history, it would have been impossible even to notice technical innovation in the course of a lifetime. But today technological change is a yearly event. This trend is not only or mainly a matter of ever smaller and faster gadgets. More profoundly, more spheres of social and economic life come to rely on the platform of interconnected computation, which itself becomes ever more powerful.  Law itself is on the cusp of computational envelopment.

But technologists rarely reflect on the kinds of political institutions we need to govern a world of faster change.  Flexible institutions and policies must not only respond to the rate of technological change but also incorporate it. Consider the latest predictions of even more dramatic change by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s AI chief:

“By the late 2010s, glasses will beam images directly onto the retina. Ten terabytes of computing power (roughly the same as the human brain) will cost about $1,000.

By the 2020s, most diseases will go away as nanobots become smarter than current medical technology. The Turing test begins to be passable. Self-driving cars begin to take over the roads, and people won’t be allowed to drive on highways.

By the 2030s, virtual reality will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind/consciousness by the end of that decade.

By the 2040s, non-biological intelligence will be a billion times more capable than biological intelligence (a.k.a. us).”

I am not endorsing these predictions, although Kurzweil has a decent track record as futurologist. But even if these events take two or three times as long as Kurzweil has predicted, it will be a bumpy ride.

The potential disruptions can be divided into three types. First, there is danger from the technological innovation itself. Bill Gates recently added his voice to those who are worried about strong AI getting out of control. Second, there is disruption of domestic social life.  For example, self-driving cars may rapidly displace three million people who drive for a living. Or substantially longer life expectancies would put intense pressure on  Social Security. Finally, there is disruption abroad, as the wave of acceleration engulfs societies, like many in the Islamic world, that have not come to terms with the social demands of industrialization, let alone the computational age. The result may be more disorientation and terrorism with the added danger that groups will have access to new kinds of weapons of mass destruction, made possible by biotechnology or nanotechnology.

As Kurzweil’s predictions come to pass, societies will become wealthier. But that does not mean politics—often defined as the process of who gets what, when and how—will end. As wealth grows, people may be increasingly tempted to take it though political means, perhaps all the more so as some people are left on the sidelines by the changes.

A blog post is not the place to offer quick solutions to a profound problem. I have tried to do so elsewhere. But any solution must take advantage of accelerating technology to govern this age of acceleration. For instance, the very information technology that is at the root of technological acceleration can help us improve policy responses to these disruptions.   Forms of politically predictive information technology could include everything from prediction markets to multiplayer games in which players would simulate the results of policy before it was actually implemented. Would that technologists turn their minds to helping make our politics more information rich and evidence based.