Letter from London: Democratic Resilience in the Age of AI


American-British novelist Raymond Chandler would probably have liked the rainy night, though I was actually thinking about his line about a coffee shop having a strong enough smell to build a garage on. I was on Tottenham Court Road. I was even wearing a raincoat (no trilby). But, I was now thinking, was the world strong enough to build AI on?

I cut across Grafton Way, clocking the streetlights reflected in the wet London cobbles. I could see the faces of one or two students through the darkness. ‘Let’s hire these bikes!’ exclaimed one woman, looking at her suddenly fearful male friends. Unlike them, I was en route to the Cruciform Building at UCL (University College London), close to where I would attend a talk at the weekend at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), preparations for which would mean missing out on watching Michigan beat Ohio with American friend James Linville at a Philly-themed sports bar close to the US embassy.

I entered the red Victorian building and waited in the lobby. This took too long so I penetrated the inner sanctum anyway — I didn’t want to miss anything. As I walked through, it was like the entire world was studying there. (Commendably so.) Feeling not unlike a student myself, I skipped down a wide set of steps. (You get people in hospitals wandering around pretending to be doctors; I wondered if there was a student equivalent.) After struggling to find the right room, it was smaller than expected when I did, though no less significant.

Keeping to myself, I was there to listen to a panel of four experts discuss ‘Democratic Resilience in the Age of AI’. I sat down at the back, a row to myself. ‘Can you budge up?’ interrupted a student, so I shifted along, to a position close to the wall.

Afghan-Ukrainian Angelika Sharygina was the first to talk. With a startup providing solutions to combat misinformation to power the next generation of critical thinkers, her stated belief in ‘tech for good’ was no idle gimmick. Big on fake news, big on digital rights and forced migration and war studies, she was commendably saying all was not well in the world but all could be well. People today crave such well-informed sanguineness. Without wishing to sound patronizing, younger people are so much better at dealing with technologies out of control than older people. This is why the world should support people like Angelika Sharygina.

Anton Christodoulou spoke next. I idly wondered if the neat moustache was part of the brilliant Movember campaign — whose European Young Men’s Health director Tracy Herd I considered myself lucky enough to know. Christodoulou is chief technology officer at Imagination, an ‘experiential’ marketing and design company. I may have popped in there during the days of planning for the Millennium Dome. (It is headquartered just around the corner on Store Street.) Christodoulou is someone with over 20 years of experience in technology projects such as AI and admitted straight up that democracy was not his bag. Though I warmed to him, I just wished he hadn’t bothered to say how much more important the present discussion was than gender politics. On behalf of those for whom gender politics can be a matter of life and death, I found it unprovoked and unnecessary. Later, I wondered if he was related to a woman British army officer I knew in Helmand with the same surname.

Panellist Stephanie Antonian was a true tour de force. As director of Aestora, she designs AI applications that move humans from fear to peace. A tall order, but one I can admire. Cheerful references were made of the fact Antonian had previously been a biblical scholar, whose narratives and needs for belief were maybe not so irrelevant to what she was attempting today, she pointed out. (Aestora’s website begins: ‘In the opening of all Abrahamic religions, the creation myth of Adam and Eve is a warning: not all can be known.’) She also actually helped build the ethics team at DeepMind and worked with NASA, Google X – the Moonshot Factory, Harvard, and Accenture, on social justice projects. With such heavyweights, how lucky I was to be there, I was thinking. Even from the way Antonian kept leaning forward to emphasize her points, you could tell she weighted each with care. At one point, she told us we were transitioning from a democratic to Mafia structure. Just as ‘The Godfather’ began with a father whose daughter had been raped, and the police had done nothing about it, and the father needed a ruthless behavioral code to sort it out, so Antonian pointed out that if the police had done their job properly, there would have been no need for a Mafia. In short, the gravity of what she was saying about today was not lost on me.

Greig Dowling, as founder of disinformation detection platform Mitify+ and co-founding trustee of the data privacy advocacy group Trust 3.0, knows well both media and technology. He even mentioned — with a wry smile — he could have worked at one stage in his career for Cambridge Analytica, a company made defunct in 2018. Clearly passionate about web3, AI, and digital privacy, he nonetheless harbored a kind of fetching selflessness in what is presumably a highly commercial field. This is not easy when for instance you look at UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s recent so-called AI safety conference at Bletchley Park. In a field energetically hijacked by a heady twinship of business and government, arguably the two biggest threats to AI, he convenes an event with what some experts say was insufficient representation of true and proper vigilance, presumably because it was bad for business? In other words, if business and government are your problems, don’t ask business and government to sort it out. Later, Dowling casually pointed out that the next ChatGPT will basically know what we want before we know it ourselves, anyway. It may even order it for us. I did at least feel strangely thankful that it fell to people like Dowling to make the tools needed to highlight the levels of lies we continue to receive. 

It was next pointed out that only 2% of children can tell deepfake from real. ‘How do you protect children at the same time as make a profit out of them?’ someone asked rhetorically, though many do as a matter of fact believe vigilance may be maintainable only through making it profitable. It was also said everyone is hacked, everyone, and that our own data was not that valuable, but that we should all get a piece of the action, as every time we scroll — as people know by now — someone is making money out of us, CounterPunch being a rare exception. (As Raymond Chandler might have written to Big Tech: ‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine.’) It was then discussed the importance of academic institutes. There were many great young scientists in the room, for example, most of whom were under-utilized, it was claimed. Looking around, I saw many avid minds, many of them taking notes, straining like me to grasp the greater complexities, in their case probably getting there in the end. They were also all so charmingly courteous.

Then someone else reminded us that Amazon spends more money on lobbying than the entire oil and gas industry. Governments, democracies if we prefer, simply do not share the same power anymore. Someone hinted mischievously that they should shut down the internet if they really wanted to show how fragile it all was, as if something that could be done with just the click of a finger — and not just because ethicists are simply not evolving at the same rate as corporation techies. Besides, structures of government are insufficiently robust to regulate at the same time as others innovate.

Fascinatingly, Antonian believed our problems were often emotional. Nor did she appear to believe the survival of Western democracies a tech issue. It was up to the politicians, she seemed to imply. ‘We don’t owe them a democracy playhouse,’ she said. She wondered if it was simply our own incompetence that meant we had — to use her arresting phrase — ‘lost love’. Poignantly, she added that it was as though we had been told love was weak, but, as she reminded everyone, when our leaders hate themselves they will always fail. I liked that. Maybe there was something so inherently destructive about the male psyche when it came to new technology that women were needed far more than men in this field. On cue, her so-called love solution was considered impractical by one person. Antonian called them out on this, her examples of lovelessness including Elon Musk taking ketamine for depression, while former home secretary Suella Braverman should have been asked: ‘Are you okay?’ She also said that the time for discussion was actually over, and that ethics had not produced anything other than back-patting — emitting a slight gasp from the student who had asked me to budge up.

As far as I could tell, democracy and AI were like potential dance partners caught blushing in the wings by the dance floor. You felt certain one was about to step up and take over the dance floor, maybe design a new dance or two (million). It didn’t take much to work out either could be the winner. As far as the kindling of future democracies was concerned, the same propaganda models used in Ukraine on social media platforms such as Telegram, as Angelika Sharygina successfully pointed out, were already being used elsewhere. (Chandler again: ‘Guns never settle anything, I said. They are just a fast curtain to a bad second act.’) With up to twenty important elections coming up over tribe next two years, we could with this kind of technology be about to see a kind of apocalyptic gang-bang of malicious actors. Or not, as the case may be. Despite the fact there were not enough people in government to solve the problems that may arise, this didn’t need to remain the case forever. ‘If you want to be trustworthy,’ said Antonian, ‘then be trustworthy.’ Humans were flawed. Tech will realize this. It will punish us, saying we are rubbish. This was when I suddenly began to see that we could, in fact, fight back, especially with the likes of the brilliant young minds in that small room that rainy night.

As I stepped back into the rain, I felt oddly elated. There had been so much to take in but I did leave with the last-minute feeling there was such a thing as democratic resilience in the age of AI. I turned up my collar, and walked towards Warren Street Tube station, wondering with a lazy smile what AI would make of Raymond Chandler. What I could guess was what Raymond Chandler would have made of AI: ‘It was hollow and empty as a dead man’s heart.’

Peter Bach lives in London.