February 3, 2017 1:00 pm JST

Poor decision-making provokes calls for AI in politics

Can the cold, hard logic of circuitry and big data steer a better course?

A paramilitary police officer stands in front of a giant portrait of Chinese late Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, China on July 20, 2016. © Reuters

TOKYO -- Chinese science fiction writer Wang Pu-kang has some bitter memories of the Cultural Revolution, a decadelong period of political and social upheaval in China that started in 1966.

In spring that year, Wang, who was a third-year high school student at the time, became a target of harsh criticism simply because of his "bad pedigree." He was born to a family of a local landlord in China's Henan Province.

His future looked hopeless. 

The Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong's attempt to mobilize the masses to reassert his control over the Communist Party, and it dramatically illustrates how cruel politics can be. 

Although Wang was initially disgusted by the frenzied and brutal movement, he gradually became sympathetic to the ideas behind it and eventually became an ardent supporter.

Wang used his writing skills to produce posters that attacked political enemies within the party. 

In the autumn of 1967, Wang was moved to tears when he, standing along with the Red Guards, saw Mao during a parade in Beijing. "Long live Mao Zedong!" Wang shouted together with the crowd.

"Now it sounds laughably absurd, but I never realized I was mistaken at that time," Wang said.

Half a century since then the world is still plagued by a plethora of misguided political decisions.

A new hope

Now Wang thinks one possible answer to this universal problem, which is as old as history, is rapidly advancing artificial intelligence technology. "AI's decisions may be more reliable" than those made by people, he said.

Political leaders sometimes make terrible decisions, even in democratic countries. 

Things that are deemed impossible happen. Witness Britain's decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump becoming president of the U.S. 

There is a growing wave of interest in AI's potential to help people make better decisions in a wide range of areas, including politics. 

Ben Guertzel is on the vanguard of research in AI-supported political decision-making.

"Today's politicians don't have their fingers on the pulse of public opinion," Guertzel said. Leading an international network of AI researchers, he has launched an organization to develop AI politicians. 

The catalyst behind the idea was the global financial crisis triggered by the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings. 

After failing to effectively respond to a housing bubble driven by subprime loans, the U.S. government was forced to use substantial fiscal and monetary policy tools to lead the nation out of the crisis caused by the bubble bursting. 

Goertzel believes AI could have detected the looming crisis earlier. The U.S. would have been better off if the money used to deal with the crisis had been spent on cutting-edge technologies in medical and other key areas, he said.

However, Goertzel does not envision a future where AI will make all of the policy decisions. Rather, several AI systems will use different data and learning speeds to come up with various conclusions, which will then be put to a vote by the people.

Circuits vs. self-interest

One Asian country is already turning to AI to help repair its dysfunctional politics. 

After decades of failed politicians and scandal-tainted presidencies, South Korea is seeking Goertzel's help to build an AI-based system to make policy decisions. Amid growing concerns about rising populism, the country is hoping to put the system into operation in 2018.

Japan, too, is no stranger to political failures.

Another sign of bad politics was spotted on Dec. 15, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party held a meeting to discuss the government's proposal to reduce the cuts in premiums paid for the public health care insurance program by people aged 75 or older.

Lambasting the proposal, which was designed to curb the rapid growth in social security spending, one LDP lawmaker serving the interests of industries supervised by the health ministry said the proposed revision is "foolish."

Concerns about a backlash from elderly voters make the ruling party reluctant to take the step, which is clearly needed to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of social security.

The biggest problem with politics is a tendency among lawmakers to avoid tackling such politically risky issues, said Kaoru Yosano, a former minister for economic and fiscal policy.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was so disillusioned by the reality of democracy that he advocated rule by the wise -- a virtuous, highly educated few who are not driven by self-interest. 

Yosano, however, is skeptical about the idea of policy decisions made by AI. "Politics involves making decisions on issues that are living things, and AI can't solve them," he said.

With the Japanese government debt now exceeding 1,000 trillion yen ($8.84 trillion), the country is in dire need of politicians who can make gutsy policy decisions that are good for the nation's well-being. The question is how many Japanese lawmakers can do the job better than AI. 

(Nikkei)

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