Tag Archives: free speech

How Artificial Intelligence Will Destroy Democracy (In A Good Way)

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Picture the perfect candidate for an election. I know the bar for politicians these days is laughably low, but try to stretch your imagination a bit. Try to envision the kind of candidate that embodies the best collection of values, abilities, and charisma for a civilized society.

Everybody looks for something different in a candidate, but a truly perfect candidate would appeal to everyone in a democratic system. This person would embody the highest values, championing human rights to the utmost and justice for everyone. Every decision they make is with the safety, sanctity, and rights of other people as their top priority. There’s no compromise. They do right by the people every time and all the time.

This person would also be the ultimate leader, capable of getting anyone to go along with them without fear or coercion. There wouldn’t need to be corruption of any kind. This person would be perfectly capable of navigating every level of government and making it work to the utmost. The people would trust in that government, believe in it, and even celebrate it.

Keep that perfect candidate in the forefront of your mind because when it comes to discussing politics, cynicism tends to rule the day. I don’t think I need to cite too many recent events to show how imperfect democracy is these days. I don’t even need to cite famous historical events that show just how bad government can be in this convoluted world.

It’s because of that cynicism, though, that the perfect candidate you’re thinking of could never win a democratic election in the real world. Even if they existed, the inherent flaws of the electorate and those of less perfect candidates would keep them from winning. It’s one of democracy’s greatest flaws. It’s not about who the best candidate is. It’s just about who can convince enough people that they’re worth voting for.

On the subject of democracy, Winston Churchill once said the following:

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Time, politics, and the proliferation of has only proven Mr. Churchill right. I would even amend that quote to say just 30 seconds on 4chan will make anyone lose faith in the promise of democracy. That’s not to say democracy is all bad, though. Mr. Churchill also once famously said this about the alternatives:

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It’s distressing, but frustrating fact of civilization, one that fuels mass protests, fake news, and lurid scandals. Go back to any point in history and scrutinize any government, be it a king or some quasi-democracy, and chances are you’ll find serious flaws in the system. I don’t just mean long lines at the post office, either. There have been times when democracy has not furthered the protection of human rights.

It’s not necessarily a flawed principle as it is a concept with flawed ingredients. While I tend to place a great deal of faith in the goodness of human nature, I don’t deny that people can be arrogant, irrational, and downright callous. We’re prone to overreacting and not thinking things through. We’re hard-wired to go with intuition over logic.

Even when we’re proven wrong, we stubbornly cling to our assertions. The prevalence of creationism is proof enough of that. Every election cycle is prone to bold promises, bloated melodrama, and major goals that rarely ever become actual policy. Some become full-fledged revolutions with Utopian visions. The fact that none of those utopias ever manifested is proof of how unsuccessful they were.

We are not a species built for democracy on a large scale. We evolved to function in close-knit tribes, hunting and gathering for food while fighting for survival. That kind of evolution doesn’t really lend itself to a functioning democracy. It doesn’t lend itself to a total autocracy, either. Whether it’s a free republic or a fascist state, humans cannot govern other humans without their flaws plaguing them in both directions.

It’s for this reason that I often lean libertarian in political debates, but given the complexities and challenges of modern society, even that only goes so far. Like it or not, large-scale civilizations populated a species not evolved to manage it requires some measure of authority. More importantly, it requires competent, incorruptible, compassionate authority.

It needs to be able to defend a population of people within a particular border. It needs fair and just laws that can be equally enforced. It also needs the confidence and trust of the people being governed. Sometimes, it’s done out of fear. Sometimes, it’s done out of free will. Both can work, provided the system has robust capabilities that aren’t prone to human error.

Unless a government is populated by a democratic council consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Doom, that kind of functional democracy is physically impossible. Even though democracy is still the best we have from an exceedingly limited list of options, that may change in a big way thanks to artificial intelligence.

I know it seems like I attribute many superhuman capabilities to this emerging field, it’s hard to overstate its potential. Unlike every other tool humanity has created, artificial intelligence promises to rewrite the rules at every level of society. That includes government and it’s here where AI’s capabilities could go beyond superhuman.

Think back to that perfect candidate I mentioned earlier and all the traits that made them perfect. By and large, an advanced artificial intelligence shares many of those traits and then some. A sufficiently powerful AI would be beyond politics, pettiness, or demagoguery. In principle, it could embody everything people would want in a strong leader and a capable government.

For one, it would be smarter than any human. Beyond knowing more about every subject than any human ever could, it would be smart in a way that would allow it to persuade people to trust it. That’s often a skill that even smart politicians fail to refine. It certainly doesn’t help that many voters attribute intelligence with smugness. That’s a big reason why populist candidates of questionable merit gain so much support.

An advanced artificial intelligence, provided it has an in depth understanding of human psychology and how to persuade people, would be able to gain support from everyone. It wouldn’t be bound by the limits that keep most human candidates from appealing to everyone. With enough intelligence and capabilities, it would surmise a way to appeal to everybody.

Beyond just persuading the voters, an AI of that level could be just as effective at actual governance. There are plenty of candidates who are very adept at winning elections, but terrible when it comes to actually governing. A capable AI would be able to do both. If anything, one function would complement the other.

With enough emotional, logistical, and pragmatic intelligence, this AI would be capable of crafting and passing laws without the need for debate or controversy. The laws it crafts are already so refined and so well thought out that to do so would be redundant. In the same time it takes your phone to send a text, this AI could pass sweeping legislation that protects human rights, ensures justice for all, and promotes economic growth.

It’s hard to imagine because the only laws and government we’ve ever known have come from flawed humans. It’s just as hard to imagine how those laws would be enforced. Perhaps this advanced AI has nodes all throughout society that allow it to gather data, know where enforcement is needed, and determine the appropriate recourse. If it’s capable enough, people won’t even know it’s there.

Perhaps that same AI uses a mix of human enforcers and intelligent robots to maintain order. If the AI is sufficiently capable, every enforcer at every level would be equipped with perfect knowledge and a clear understanding of how to carry out the orders of the government. Since an AI wouldn’t be prone to corruption or prejudice, instances of injustices would be few and far between.

It wouldn’t be a totalitarian state of Orwellian proportions. It would be more of a “Star Trek” style, post-scarcity society where we wouldn’t have to be cynical about government authority. We would inherently trust it because it’s just that effective. We wouldn’t feel like we’re being run by a robot dictator. We would feel like we’re being run by the greatest ruler outside of a “Black Panther” movie.

To some extent, though, an advanced artificial intelligence of this nature would render democracy obsolete. If we created an AI that could effectively govern society at every level, then what’s the purpose of having elections in the first place? Why bother when there’s an intelligence that’s literally more capable than any ordinary human could possibly be?

History has shown that democracy and government can only do so much when flawed humans are in charge. Once advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the logistics of governance changes entirely.

Perhaps there will be a period in our history where instead of running human candidates, we start creating AI systems that compete with one another in a pseudo-democratic process. That would go a long way towards improving overall governance.

Unlike humans, though, technology evolves much faster than humans ever will and it wouldn’t take long for those systems to improve to a point where they’re just too good an option to overlook. Human-led governments, even in humans who are enhanced to some degree, will still have flaws. In a future where technology, society, and individuals keep creating new challenges, we’ll need a capable government to manage it all.

In the end, that government probably won’t be a democracy. It won’t be a dictatorship, either. It’ll be something that we can’t yet conceptualize. That’s the biggest challenge when contemplating something like an advanced artificial intelligence, though. It operates on a level that ordinary humans literally cannot comprehend. That’s why it’s our best option for governing our future.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, futurism, political correctness, Thought Experiment

The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

internet-censorship

If you walked up to any random person on the street and asked them how they feel about censorship, chances are they would say they’re against it. Absent any context, most people equate censorship with tyranny and rightly so. Historically speaking, tyrannical societies are not beacons of free speech.

When you add context to that same question, though, then people are a bit more diverse in their response. They may say they’re against censorship, but they’ll also oppose hate speech and even support efforts to remove it from certain venues or platforms. It’s not the same as government-suppressed speech, but it’s still censorship on some levels.

A government’s effort to prohibit or punish speech is more daunting. That’s exactly why we have things like the First Amendment. Governments are big, powerful entities with armies and tax collectors. Their brand of censorship is a lot more concrete than others. That’s why such extensive legal protections are necessary.

When it comes less overt forms of censorship, though, the line isn’t as clear and neither are the legal protections. It can take the form of de-platforming a controversial speaker, which has happened on college campuses. It can also take the form of banning certain websites or certain subgroups within a website. These efforts aren’t usually called censorship. They’re usually referred to as preventing the spread of hate.

Personally, I don’t buy that excuse. As much as I abhor some of the things people say, both online and in person, any attempt to indirectly silence them is still censorship in my book. I call it “soft censorship” because it doesn’t involve government force. In many cases, it’s a grass roots effort to combat certain ideas that many find offensive.

That seems to be the most notable standard these days, the offensiveness of certain speech. That’s understandable, given how the world is more connected than it has ever been in human history. It’s now easier than ever for hateful, offensive speech to spread. Conversely, it’s also easy for the outrage to that speech to spread as well.

As a result, the forces behind that outrage are often the most powerful forces behind soft censorship. That outrage takes many forms too. It can be driven by political correctness, religious dogma, and general trolling. Censorship or suppression of speech is not always the stated goal, but it is often a desired result.

Given the ongoing changes to the media landscape, this brand of censorship seems to be getting more prominent than anything government effort. In fact, the reason I chose to bring this issue up is because of a few notable incidents that highlight the growing disconnect between free speech and movements to combat hate speech.

The first incident happened earlier this year and came from the gaming world, a domain that is no stranger to censorship and targeted outrage. The outrage in this case, though, had nothing to do with how beautiful women are depicted and everything to do with the policy of the popular Steam platform by Valve.

The particulars of the issue are simple. Valve was getting criticism for allowing too many violent, adult-oriented games on their platform, including those with overtly erotic themes. For a while, it looked like they would follow the same policy as Nintendo and Apple, who don’t allow anything that can’t be shown in a Disney movie.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly for some, Valve opted for a more libertarian policy. The standards are simple. As long as the content isn’t illegal or outright trolling, then it’s permitted. In the context of freedom of speech and creative freedom, this should count as a victory. However, that’s not how some saw it.

Almost immediately, Valve was heavily criticized for this freedom-centric policy and for all the wrong reasons. Some went so far as to call it irresponsible and cowardly, daring to permit games on their platform that might be overly graphic, crude, or sexy. Being a private company and not a government, that’s certainly their right.

Even so, it generated outrage. People didn’t see it as an act to promote free expression. They see it as a means of spreading hateful, offensive, sexist content and profiting from it. At at time when the video game industry sparks outrage every time it depicts a female character, Valve really took a chance by taking this approach and it’s sure to generate plenty more controversy, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Those same reasons showed up in another incident involving Reddit, a site on which I’m very active. Specifically, it involved a subreddit called KotakuInAction, which emerged in wake of the infamous GamerGate controversy in 2014. As a result, it has a reputation for being pretty brutal in its criticisms of regressive, far-left attitudes.

It’s oftent cited as one of the most “toxic” places on Reddit. There have been more than a few efforts to ban it. At one point, for reasons that I’d rather not get into, it was actually removed by its original creator. However, it was saved and put back up within less than a day, much to the relief of the nearly 100,000 subscribers.

Few will call that a victory for free speech. Those who criticize Valve and Reddit for permitting it don’t see their actions as suppressing speech. They see it as combating harassment and hate. Therein lies the problem with that effort, though. Harassment and hate are serious issues, but attacking only the speech is like attacking a single symptom of a much larger disease.

Even if Reddit had permanently banned KotakuInAction and Valve had opted to censor offensive games, it wouldn’t have made the ideas behind them disappear. Like putting a censor bar in front of female breasts, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and that they have an impact.

You could turn off the internet, burn every book, and shut down every newspaper tomorrow. That still wouldn’t stop people from thinking and feeling the things that lead them to want to say something offensive or create an offensive game. Speech is just a byproduct of ideas. Attacking the speech is not the same as confronting the source.

In fact, doing so can be counterproductive. There’s a real phenomenon called the Streisand Effect wherein efforts to hide, remove, or cenors something ends drawing more attention to it. The fact that Area 51 is a super-secret government facility that everyone knows about shows how powerful that effect can be.

In the context of combating hate, efforts to censor those behind it can end up elevating their message. When someone is censored, there’s an application of force implied. Whether it’s from a government or a moderator on a message board, censorship requires some level of force. Applying it to anyone is going to put them in a position to feel oppressed and that oppression tends to fuel hatred.

Harassment is different because when it comes to free speech, the line between discourse and threats is a bit less ambiguous. The Supreme Court has established a criteria for what constitutes “fighting words,” but it’s when things happen on a computer screen where it gets tricky.

Like hate, though, there’s a right and wrong way to deal with harassment. The right way to deal with a direct threat is to contact local law enforcement. The wrong way is to make it into a spectacle that requires that both the harasser and the platform they used to be condemned.

It’s an inescapable fact of life in any functioning society. The same platforms we use to interact will be used by others for disgusting, hateful, and offensive activities. We may feel disgust and revulsion for these things, but trying to silence both the people and the platform doesn’t make the sentiment behind it go away.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t wired that way.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Considering the impact of the the Streisand Effect, it’s utterly backwards.

I’m all for confronting hate and combating harassment, but not through censorship, hard or soft. It’s hard enough trying to change someone’s mind in an era where they can customize their news feeds. At the end of the day, we can only truly affect someone’s heart and mind by focusing on the person and not what’s on their computer screens.

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Free Speech And The Long-Term Fallout Of The “Rosanne” Cancellation

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When it comes to free speech and freedom of expression, I consider myself somewhat of an extremist. If I were in charge of setting the standards, I would permit un-bleeped profanity, unfiltered hate speech, unblurred nudity, and anything else that One Million Moms finds offensive. That’s how much I believe in free speech.

It’s probably for that reason that I would be woefully unqualified to establish a legal framework for what constitutes free speech and how it would be enforced. I’m not a lawyer, a legal expert, or some colorful TV personality who pretends to be one. Despite my qualifications, though, I do feel like I have something worth contributing to an ongoing debate surrounding free speech.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet or a TV over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard about the scandal surrounding Roseanne Barr. Simply put, Rosanne Barr made some offensive tweets that she blamed on sleeping pills. The tweets triggered a major outrage across social media. As a result, ABC canceled her hit show, which had been generating strong ratings since its return.

On some levels, I can understand this reaction. ABC is owned by Disney, a company that has one of the strongest brands in the world. They are not the government. They are a publicly traded company and as such, public perceptions affect their profits and their image. If you think that doesn’t matter, just ask the NFL what happens when a brand gets undermined.

On every other level, though, I see this reaction as one of those short-term solutions that could create many other problems in the long run. Whether you agree with Roseanne Barr’s politics or hate her guts, she was still just voicing her opinion. Yes, it was in bad taste and had some racial overtones, but she did apologize for it. The sincerity of that apology is hard to gauge, but the effort still counts for something in my opinion.

Even without that apology, the potential precedent and backlash are already in place. We, as a society, have established a process for punishing speech that we don’t like or find offensive. The process has nothing to do with an authoritarian government cracking down on its people. It doesn’t even involve the kind of mass censorship that other countries routinely practice. We’re doing this all on our own.

Essentially, we’re doing Big Brother’s job for him. We’re just not calling it censorship or a crackdown. Instead, we’re creating our own category of speech that a significant number of people believe ought not to be expressed or shared. There are no lawyers or police enforcing those standards. We’re doing that through a type of speech-based vigilante justice.

Me being a die-hard fan of superhero comics, many of which are built around vigilante justice, I’m somewhat sympathetic to those who want to right the wrongs that our imperfect justice system leaves unfinished. In this case, however, I don’t see the kind of justice that Batman would pursue, nor do I see the kind of villainy that the Joker would carry out.

I see an emerging system where a huge population of well-connected, well-informed, and generally well-meaning people want to confront people and ideas that they feel our damaging to others, themselves, and society as a whole. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their idealism. However, I seriously doubt they understand the implications of what they’re doing.

I don’t agree with Roseanne Barr’s comments. I didn’t find them funny, but I didn’t find them that offensive either. I see far more offensive comments on message boards and Reddit at least twice a day. That sentiment is out there. It exists. Even if the internet disappeared tomorrow, people would still have these thoughts and opinions.

That’s exactly why the outrage, protests, and subsequent consequences don’t necessarily achieve much beyond removing a few offensive comments from an immense network that’s full of so much worse. It does nothing to actually change the sentiments of those expressing the speech. If anything, it just makes them regret getting punished.

It’s akin to the inherent conflict we feel in accepting a criminal’s apology. We can’t know for sure whether they’re genuinely sorry for doing what they did or whether they’re just sorry they got caught. One is very different from the other. Without reading Roseanne Barr’s mind directly, we don’t know if her show getting cancelled has changed her political persuasions or just made them worse.

Moreover, her losing her show, her job, and her credibility reveals to a hyper-connected world that this is how you combat speech you find offensive. You don’t try to change someone’s mind. You don’t grow thicker skin and deal with it. You just get enough people to voice enough outrage and eventually, you can both remove the speech and punish the person who spoke it.

For those who didn’t like Roseanne’s comments or were genuinely offended by them, I doubt that seems like a bad thing. They are, after all, simply voicing their own free speech and using that to effect change from a non-government, publicly-traded company. They probably see themselves as the heroes in this story.

What happens, though, when the script is flipped? It’s not unlike the distressing thought experiment I pitched a while back that involved swapping the genders of famous movie or TV scenes. Reverse the roles and suddenly, the situation takes on a very different context.

You don’t even need any imagination to contemplate this because it already happened with Colin Kaepernick. Like Roseanne, he expressed himself in a very public way that triggered a very public backlash. He ended up losing his job and any prospects of getting another.

The same people celebrating Roseanne Barr’s cancellation likely protested how Kaepernick was treated. Some of them even protested on his behalf in a very public way to apply pressure not unlike the kind ABC faced. While the two situations are not exactly the same, the general premise is clear.

If someone expresses a political opinion that you don’t agree with, you and those like you can protest as well to silence that opinion and publish the one who expressed it. Conservatives can do it to liberal figures. Liberals can do it to conservative figures. The end result is the same. The speech is silenced and the speaker is punished, but the underlying attitudes remain untouched.

It’s those untouched attitudes that may end up having the biggest long-term impact of both the Roseanne Barr situation and that of Colin Kaepernick. Being public figures, these two made themselves targets with their controversial expressions. However, the way others confronted it is potentially damaging to the very concept of free speech.

Thanks to the internet, social media, and outrage culture, both situations make clear to those of any political persuasion that you don’t have to confront the actual substance of someone else’s speech. You don’t have to thicken your skin, evolve your thinking, or learn how to process offense. You can just protest the speech and punish the speaker, all without getting the government involved.

That’s the kind of approach that does not foster a free, open exchange of ideas. If anything, it ensures that people internalize their feelings and sentiments that others may find offensive. In doing so, that makes it even harder to confront them and potentially change their minds. Roseanne losing her show isn’t going to convince her that her critics are right. If anything, it’s going to make her hate her critics even more.

The end result of this kind of self-censorship is downright dystopian. Imagine a world where everything online, on TV, and in movies is so filtered, so watered down, and so overly polished that nobody even has an opportunity to voice anything offensive. The government doesn’t enforce it. We do.

In that world, hate and bigotry still exists. It’s just hidden and we have no way of knowing about it. History and human nature makes clear that internalizing these feelings can be very damaging. Now, we’ve just given Roseanne Barr and everyone who shares her views to be angrier and more hateful. We’ve also given them a tool with which to fight back against those they disagree with.

It’s a dangerous situation with damaging implications for the future of free speech. We could argue whether or not ABC was right to cancel Roseanne’s show or whether a company like Disney has the right to fire people who damage their brand. At the end of the day, though, the source of the outrage and conflict still comes from us. If offense is all it takes to censor speech, then speech is no longer free.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, media issues, political correctness