Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.
“So aren’t computers just better at everything?” I asked.
“When a 90-year old woman is trapped in a collapsed and dangerous building, we choose to send several healthy young men in there to save her. It makes no sense. An AI wouldn’t do it. But we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t.”
My work on the politics of automation has led me to some fascinating conversations, not least that observation on pervasive automation. It highlights a humanity that rests beyond mere calculus, markets and rationality. In the same way as a creationist invites the physicist to explain what came before the Big Bang, we all have this nagging sense that there is a whole lot more that we don’t know; about consciousness, being, and society; about what it means to be human.