Fourth industrial revolution: Can algorithms replace government?

11 Jan 2018

Audience at the 4IRC debate series on government and society. Image: TechWatch

A Connect 4IRC panel recently discussed algorithms, digital democracy and the role played by the government. TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports.

The latest Connect Fourth Industrial Revolution Challenge (4IRC) debate series focused on government and society, held in Derry on 12 December 2017.

The first speaker was Quintin Oliver, director of Stratagem Northern Ireland (NI).


Quintin Oliver. Image: TechWatch

Oliver began: “Can algorithms replace government? No. It can’t happen because someone has to write the algorithms and they make the decisions.

“The other question is whether it’s incorruptible. It takes on average 86 weeks to find out if someone infiltrates a computer – that’s too long for government,” he said.

Oliver then discussed how you can replace some things with algorithms, but they have different characteristics.

“It works with chess where you have so many iterations of how to play the game – 40bn options – and a computer can learn them. But why haven’t computers taken over gambling? Algorithms are not terribly good at doing complex things.

“Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of humans in politics. What do politicians do?”

The audience contributed some ideas, some more generous than others: please the majority, get re-elected, expertise at segmenting audience (and, in the case of NI, segmenting orange from green), cost money, solve problems.

Oliver said: “In ancient Greece, in Athens, they had a general assembly every day. Sparta down the road was an oligarchy and we associate that with ‘bad’ today; the Spartans chose a system where a few people emerged who had decision-making powers.

“The best list that you can come up with why algorithms can’t replace human leaders [is]:

  • Human characteristics that a computer won’t have; creativity, experience
  • Computers cannot do empathy (I think that’s going to be the challenging one)
  • Who controls the algorithms, and how do you ensure their incorruptibility?
  • Empathy between the voter, whoever that is, and the state or jurisdiction

“Finally, I’m going to end with my favourite newspaper headline ever: ‘Bishop warns Yes voters will go to Hell.’”

He concluded: “No computer could have invented or produced that headline. Without people, we couldn’t have the rough, raw, emotive and creative politics that we all love to watch.”


Jon Barnes. Image: TechWatch

The next speaker joined via video link: Jon Barnes, the author of Democracy Squared. His six-minute talk is available to view entirely here.

Barnes began: “Some people think democracy is the past, but there are two myths that need to be busted.”

Myth 1: It’s an old Greek thing

“Not true. Democracy is young. In the ’70s, the vast majority of countries were autocracies; only 24pc of the world’s governments were democracies. It’s only from the 1990s onwards that this has shifted, and only in the past 15 years have the majority of countries been run democratically.”

Myth 2: Democracy is broken

“Democracy isn’t broken and there are two ways to prove it. If you map autocracies in the world, and wars in the world, the two lines correlate perfectly. It’s easy to see that the amount of democracy in the world correlates with the amount of peace. In short, democracy equals peace.”

Barnes continued: “Democracy has gone through waves of improving and waves of pulling back. Right now, we’re in a reverse wave and that’s why it feels difficult. It’s one of the times where the world really is very different. There are more people with more access to more technology. When we multiply these effects, we see the ‘butterfly effect’ on steroids – science describes it as the chaos theory. So, we have a world like that, but we deal with it through a centralised system.

“Centralised systems aren’t able to deal with complexity like that. Distributed systems are faster, safer, and they iterate and evolve all the time,” he said.

“So far, the reason democracy is the way it’s been is because it’s been difficult to scale with ballot papers. Now, with technology, we can make more decisions better and quicker; the bandwidth of our democracy will improve.”

Barnes explained why he’s optimistic for the future: “It’s because of two things. In Iceland, they crowdsourced the constitution. Every Friday for six months, they released the draft constitution online for feedback. For the first time, you had a constitution that was constantly evolving. Another example is, in Taiwan, they used AI to get thousands of people to give feedback on legislation and then, using AI, they could predict the people’s feedback very accurately.

“I’m on the board of MiVote and we’re using blockchain to enact the will of the people. The government needs to ask people what their will is. Asking people to decide between blue and red is too binary; it’s not complex enough. We’re asking people what their will is, not driven by propaganda. On each decision, people are given four views of the future based on research. For each one, you get to vote up or down. It’s far more representative of people’s will, not ideology.

“I’m optimistic because, for the first time, a movement tries to represent people rather than taking ideology as a pre-packaged answer.”

Barnes concluded: “In summary, our democracy can now allow for so much more engagement from the public. Right now feels like the painful point before we get there. It will be a deeper form of democracy than we’ve ever seen before. I’m going to leave you with that hope. I’d love to chat more if you want to get in touch.”


Panel at the 4IRC debate series on government and society. Image: TechWatch

The event concluded with a panel discussion. On the panel were:

  • Ann-Marie Slavin, Modern Democracy
  • Colm Burns, Open Government Network NI
  • Callum Curry, Sussd
  • Quintin Oliver, Stratagem NI

The panel was hosted by Emer Maguire, radio host of Science and Stuff.

Would you use your phone to vote?

Slavin: “Yes, I’d use my phone to vote. Where government has the biggest impact on you as a citizen is at the local level, and the participation is shocking – as low as 20pc here and as low as 13pc in England. In terms of access, it’s about how you encourage people to participate. For example, Finland has compulsory registration to vote, and their biggest drive is for online services and participation. They introduced a system where anyone can start a petition with the people and, if they get 20,000 votes, the government has to discuss it.”

Burns: “More people vote in Strictly Come Dancing than vote in the general election. With 23pc turnout for some local elections, if a few hundred people vote for you, it can get you elected. Northern Ireland is antiquated; we can’t even register to vote online. If we put politicians on X Factor, maybe we’d get more turnout.”

Curry: “I’m a little biased as the CEO of Sussd but, yes, I would vote on my phone. Sussd started life as a political engagement app. We were pulling info directly from Stormont and allowing people to vote on it immediately. Access is a big reason people don’t engage, and also transparency – the fact that you want to monitor the person you’ve voted for to see how they get on in their political career.”

Oliver: “It links to the question of trust; a lot of people in society are less trusting of their phones than the people in this room. The question of voter accountability is interesting. Could decisions get changed if they thought it was a mistake?”

Tech is there as an enabler for citizen engagement, but why are we going with an antiquated democratic model? I don’t want to vote for the clowns that are put forward. It’s ideology and not policy. They aren’t interested in the real things that affect my life.

Burns: “Open policy-making is what we want to see. It leads to better outcomes, a better belief in government. Another problem is, our government is too risk-averse; they want to please everyone and please no one. Citizen forums are needed.”

Slavin: “There is some amazing work going on in Ayrshire with community-participated budgets and how they want to see money spent – this is how democracy should be. We need to reach the people that aren’t engaged. How we resolve that? Maybe it’s technology.”

Voter engagement: Is having to opt in to vote in this day and age ridiculous?

Slavin: “We did the first e-voting trials in Sheffield under Blair. He promised we’d have e-voting but then there was a change of government. In England, a lot of people execute their vote via postal voting. Everyone agrees you should be able to vote via your smartphone but there’s a larger issue about not getting the politicians you’d like.”

Curry: “Data is needed to challenge local politicians; you need data to back up what you’re challenging them with. Some people have said there’s huge potential for people to organise through social media, and the shifts in culture that can bring – that narrative doesn’t work any more. We need to completely change how the people can engage with the system. It’s not about you going on Twitter and complaining. It’s about bringing that challenge to the people who can do something about it.”

The way social media is influencing any kind of digital democracy we have – is anyone worried about this, in the era of Trump?

Oliver: “It’s a participatory democracy. All of us are giving wonderful examples of engaging citizens and giving power away, which is one of the solutions rather than the accumulation of power. Let’s not get obsessed with social media – it’s a phantom of the moment and then we’ll get bored with it.”

Burns: “One of Obama’s strategists talked about how right-wing groups in the US were buying up radio stations and they’re pumping out right-wing thinking. When you talk about fake news, you have to talk about the whole experience of how people get their information. How can we empower our communities with data?”


Audience at the 4IRC debate series on government and society. Image: TechWatch

To conclude, the audience voted on two questions:

  • Can algorithms replace politicians? (The audience was evenly divided between ‘yes’ and ‘no’.)
  • Should algorithms replace politicians? (The audience overwhelmingly voted ‘no’.)

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland