Deepening Democracy in an AI-enabled World

Credit: Unsplash/Steve Johnson


An ILO global analysis suggests that most jobs and industries are more likely to be complemented rather than substituted by the latest artificial intelligence wave. August 2023

By A.H. Monjurul Kabir
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 18 2023 – In 2002, the Human Development Report (UNDP) focused on ‘Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World’. It was an important discourse then [and still is] that evoked lot of insightful cross-regional exchanges of ideas. It reiterates that politics matter for human development because people everywhere want to be free to determine their destinies, express their views and participate in the decisions that shape their lives.

The year 2022 brought AI into the mainstream through widespread familiarity with applications of Generative Pre-Training Transformer (a type of large language model and a prominent framework for generative artificial intelligence).

The most popular application is OpenAI’s ChatGPT. The widespread fascination with ChatGPT made it synonymous with AI in the minds of most consumers. However, it represents only a small portion of the ways that AI technology is being used today. The large language models may disrupt far more than just the economy. They also appear to challenge democracy including the traditional forms of democratic engagement.

Today in 2023, on #democracyday and beyond these newer innovation and capabilities are just as important for human development—for expanding people’s choices—as being able to read or enjoy good health.

Public debate may be overwhelmed by industrial quantities of autogenerated argument. Deepfakes and misinformation generated by AI could undermine elections and democracy. Let us also lose sight of empowering citizens, fighting corruption, reforming public administration an addressing climate change.

Increasing International Monitoring and Scrutiny

We all know that AI brings targeted benefits to both development and political agenda in the digital era. It is already the main driver of emerging technologies like big data, robotics and IoT — not to mention generative AI, with tools like ChatGPT and AI art generators garnering mainstream attention. It can, nevertheless, instill bias, and significantly compromise the safety and agency of users worldwide.

Increasingly, these inter-dependent and inter-connected AI elements are getting more international scrutiny. The UN Security Council for the first time held a session on 18th July 2023 on the threat that artificial intelligence poses to international peace and stability, and UN Secretary General called for a global watchdog to oversee a new technology that has raised at least as many fears as hopes.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities presented a report (March 2022) to the Human Rights Council on artificial intelligence (AI) and the rights of persons with disabilities. Enhanced multi-stakeholder efforts on global AI cooperation are needed to help build global capacity for the development and use of AI in a manner that is trustworthy, human rights-based, safe, and sustainable, and promotes peace.

In fact, the multi-stakeholder High-level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence, initially proposed in 2020 as part of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (A/74/821), is now being formed to undertake analysis and advance recommendations for the international governance of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI and Democracy: Improving democratic Process

The debate on AI’s impact on the public sphere is currently the one most prominent and familiar to a general audience. It is also directly connected to long-running debates on the structural transformation of the digital public sphere. AI is contributing to both sides of democratic aspirations: Majority rule and protection of minorities.

While the discourse on AI and the democratic public sphere focuses mostly on the societal requirements for a healthy democracy, an additional discourse looks at how we “practice” democracy, namely at elections and how they are conducted. Recent election cycles in different countries have made it clear that malicious actors are both willing and able to leverage digital applications to subvert democracy and democratic processes.

With the advent of powerful new language models, those actors now have a potent new weapon in their arsenal. Here is good reason to fear that A.I. systems like ChatGPT and GPT4 will harm democracy.

The call for the digitalization of politics often implies a surge in automating decision-making procedures in public administration. Examples reach from welfare administration to tax systems and border control. The hope is that in an ever more complex world a shift towards highly automated systems will result in a more efficient political system.

Automation should eradicate failures and frustration, allow for more fine-grained and faster adjudication, and free up resources for other problems. However, it is important to ensure that automation values contextual realities.

Improving Democratic Process: AI Potentials and Challenges

Any system that reduces personal involvement will require years of testing before it is implemented on a large scale. However, there are a few ways it could greatly improve our processes:

    • Since AI can understand individual preferences, it can help voters make decisions and, by extension, increase participation.
    • AI will have the targeted ability to identify fraud and corruption in the system.
    • With better ways of identifying corruption, AI will open up room for electronic voting (e-voting), create more convenience, and enable a wider cross-section of society to participate.
    • AI has the potential to give voters expanded authority, allowing more issues to come up for community input and public decisions.
    • AI will allow voters to make informed choice and corresponding decision ( “drill down” and get the facts straight on any decision before they make it).
    • AI will have the ability to deal with negative campaigning, biased reporting, and unnecessary arguments.
    • AI has the potential to reduce the cost of campaigning, reduce the reliance on contributors, and reduce political corruption.
    • AI has the potential to reach out to those who are traditionally excluded or marginalized in public processes.

Needless, to say, all these potentials, if not fulfilled properly, might end of harming democratic process.

Quest for pluralism in democracy: Can Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) help?

AI can play a crucial role in progressing diversity and inclusion agenda by addressing biases, promoting fairness, and enabling equitable opportunities. By harnessing the capabilities of AI, organizations can identify and mitigate biases, improve hiring practices, enhance accessibility, promote inclusion, and cultivate an inclusive environment. A tall order that needs far more work and genuine commitments through contextual innovation.

While there is a growing awareness of the broad human rights challenges that these new technologies can pose, a more focused debate on the specific challenges of such technology to different groups including the rights of persons with disabilities is urgently needed.

Participation rights apply intersectionally, covering Indigenous people, migrants, minorities, women, children, and older persons with disabilities, among others. For example, the right of persons with disabilities and their representative organizations including organisations led by women with disabilities to participate in electoral process and public policy including artificial intelligence policymaking and in decisions on its development, deployment and use is key to achieving the best from artificial intelligence and avoiding the worst.

The question still remains – Can AI be the real window to the world for the disadvantaged groups and marginalized communities?

The future …

The discourse on AI and democracy is still in its infancy. Academic treatments and policy adaptation started around the same time and are by now still mostly driven by broader debates on digitalization and democracy and exemplary cases of misuse.

Governments need to build up expertise in artificial intelligence so they can make informed laws and regulations that respond to this new technology. They will need to deal with misinformation and deepfakes, security threats, changes to the job market, and the impact on education.

To cite just one example: The law needs to be clear about which uses of deepfakes are legal and about how deepfakes should be labeled so everyone understands when something they are seeing or hearing is not genuine.

Perhaps, we need a deeper analysis to see how political power and institutions – formal and informal, national, and international – shape human progress in an AI-enabled, still deeply fragmented world.

While focusing on enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance, reaffirm existing commitments including to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the United Nations Charter, and move towards a reinvigorated multilateral system that is better positioned to positively impact people’s lives, the proposed UN Summit of the Future 2024 should look into these challenges.

We must assess what it will take for countries to establish democratic governance systems in an increasing AI and digital world that advance the human development of all people in a world where so many are left behind.

Dr. A.H. Monjurul Kabir, a senior adviser at UN Women HQ, is a political scientist, policy analyst, and legal and human rights scholar on global issues and cross-regional trends. For academic purposes, he can be followed on twitter at mkabir2011. The views expressed in this article are in his personal capacity.

IPS UN Bureau


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