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Editorial: Tensions between artificial intelligence and democracy

The New Year has arrived, and the world continues to carry on with new hope. Special celebratory messages are spreading across the internet.

In this "information explosion" era, it is common for people to carry around high-performance computers -- namely, smartphones -- and digital data transmissions are surging every year.

Internet services, including social networking services (SNS) and search engines, have formed vital infrastructure for our everyday lives.

However, mass data processing by artificial intelligence has produced an unexpected outcome: tension in the relationship between AI and democracy. Discussions on this subject emerged after accusations came to light last spring against Cambridge Analytica, a British election consultancy, in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Allegations surfaced in the spring of 2018 that the company obtained data on up to 87 million users of Facebook and manipulated the information so that election results would favor Donald Trump, who won the election.

The company denies any wrongdoing, and no one knows the true impact of its actions. Still, the case became a dark spot in cyberspace because one manager of the company was Steve Bannon, a former close aide to Trump.

Information technology giants Facebook and Google, which are known as "platformers," depend on advertisements as their main source of income. Their business model focuses on the delivery of targeted ads based on users' internet usage histories.

Users provide their personal information, including their preferences, in return for receiving online services for free. The big data accumulated through such transactions is designed to create massive market value.

Strong AI systems attempt to uncover every detail of user preferences. High precision analysis by such systems can be applied in the political sphere. The allegations concerning Cambridge Analytica were reminiscent of such developments.

Humans have experienced other information explosions in the past. They include the invention of letterpress printing in the 15th century, and the introduction of television in the 20th century.

However, the current information explosion triggered by the digital revolution is so massive that people cannot take in the full picture. People diving into an ocean of information hang on to data they like, whether that is fake news or data customized by AI.

Brain scientist Kenichiro Mogi warns that the gap between the information explosion and people's ability to process data could be utilized for nefarious purposes. "In that sense, the singularity -- in which AI exceeds humans -- has already taken place," he says.

When the internet began to spread, IT was expected to fill the information gap and connect people horizontally. People used to talk about the utopian ideal of an "e-democracy."

But in reality, the combination of big data and AI has caused a vertical realignment of giant IT corporations and users.

From a political perspective, SNS can be used to divide society by amplifying people's discontent. Such services can also be used by those in power to deliver propaganda tailored to the preferences of each user.

The value of democracy lies in trial and error. Individuals are all different, and therefore, they try to maintain dialogue so that they can maintain sympathy. This process is completely different from AI, which boasts speed of processing and classification.

--- Need for reality

The Nii district in Awaji Island in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo is a community of some 500 residents who are mostly aged 65 or older. The local elementary school was closed nine years ago.

That school building, however, was turned into a Japanese language institute called the Japan Global Academy two years ago, after repeated consultations between officials of the city of Awaji and local residents. Now 43 Vietnamese and two Mongolian students attend the school.

Originally, the municipal government was worried about potential tension between a "marginal village" on the verge of extinction and foreigners. Such misgivings, however, were unnecessary. Local farmers deliver onions, a locally produced specialty, to the foreign students, while the foreign residents, staying at homes vacated by former residents, greet local residents when they meet on the streets.

Yoshihiro Ningyoji, 74, a resident who has looked after the students, says he considers the foreign students "junior colleagues" as they study at the same school he and his classmates attended. This kind of empathy is required at the foundations of democracy.

Perhaps we have let ourselves become too vulnerable to AI. Ancient Greek historians drew our attention to the danger of political cycle of undisciplined democracy deteriorating into mob rule or a dictatorship. The scenario of AI triggering a "post-democracy" is a nightmare.

Discussion, recognition of each other and acceptance of conclusions are vital elements of a democracy. Without those efforts, rooted in reality, democracy will take a step backward.

The Heisei era is closing its doors, and three decades have passed since the end of the Cold War. One has to wonder what awaits us behind the next door.

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