Blockchain. Cryptocurrencies. Artificial intelligence. Algorithms. People are abuzz with technological advancements that are impacting our relationship with people, politics, and consumer culture. But can democratic policymaking keep up with the never-ending waves of new developments
Technology and policy
The 21st Century has been rife with issues and scandals arising from technological advancements. From the labour conditions issue with Foxconn in 2010, to the more recent Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the exploitation of users’ data for political purposes in 2018, technology has multiple implications and cautionary tales that could hinder progress. Yet, despite these disruptions and challenges, technology continues to evolve. With the speed at which advancements continue – which demonstrate even more implications for people and society – can policy keep up?
At first glance, it appears that democratic policy-making is struggling. The rate at which new technologies are being rolled out, tested and deployed is exponentially faster than the rate at which governments and policymakers are able to understand and implement measures with which to reduce the consequences that arise. For instance, we can look at the implications of algorithms which are currently being used in various public services and policing, and the various, though inadvertent, biases that may and have already arisen.
Furthermore, there are multiple disruptive, yet necessary, technologies which do not have the proper foundation and support in policy for them to be invested in and deployed where currently needed in vital public services, identifying another pace at which policy and democracy is failing to keep up.
AI and policymaking
A key emerging technology that has significant potential, as well as risks, is the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) in the UK compared to the rest of Europe. AI has become an exciting buzzword for policymakers and politicians, who herald it as the most important innovation for the next-generation economy. However, AI is also a competitive race in which multiple countries are engaged, many pushing to be a world-leader in the integration of technology into industry. This includes the UK, which released their AI Sector Deal in 2019, aiming to scale up investment and industrial opportunities to achieve goals such as green growth and mobility.
According to consultancy McKinsey & Company, the integration of AI into industrial and commercial sectors could deliver an economic boost of 22% by 2030 if it overcomes the challenges of making it commercially successful. In contrast, the EU is at a more complicated stage, given that member states have different levels of readiness for its integration. However, there still remains an underlying issue surrounding policy – particularly around the issues of regulation and ethics.
MPs on both sides of the chamber have raised concerns over the use of advanced AI and algorithms in facial recognition technology, citing not only that it is a dangerous miscarriage of individual privacy, but also that it can be influenced by various biases. However, the current disputes are granted the loophole of legality given the absence of pre-existing policy and laws surrounding the use of such technology. The EU has already begun to consider stricter regulations given these immediate issues, even going so far as proposing a potential 5-year ban on the use of such technologies.
In 2018, the EU published multiple frameworks for AI, from guidelines on ethics in AI to the High Level Working Group on Artificial Intelligence. The UK, by contrast, has identified the flaws and key policy areas on AI by the House of Lords with particular focus on industrial strategy. Nevertheless, there remain gaps between these two publications that must be filled both independently and as a result of Brexit, which widens the discrepancy between technological advancements and policy and regulation.
Making policy work
We are well within an era defined by technological advancements, where innovation is key in industrial, social, political, economic, and environmental sectors. Policy needs to be established and must keep pace with the progress that is happening at such a rapid pace.
Democracy has already come under threat from technology, with further scandals such as interference in the US elections, skewed algorithms for political content, and even enabling the spread of fake news. As such, governments should be able to adapt and evolve with such scientific advancements, as well as secure accountability for citizens in a growing technological era. Otherwise there may be dangerous implications for democracy as we know it.
Micheil Page is Head of Agora’s Energy & Climate Programme.