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Wisdom of Code

This is an excerpt of my Future Fiction piece for Fast Future Publishing, on the topic “The Future of AI – Pathways to Artificial General Intelligence”. Through the Future Fiction format, I attempt to address the following questions:

  • Can we leverage the most advanced artificial intelligence developments in the field of politics?
  • What would be the benefits and weaknesses of a non-human/artificial leader?
  • What would be the shape and features of an AI-powered leader?
  • What would be the project milestones of creating an AI-powered leader?
  • What key factors might make us lose control over an AGI project?

The day we buckled our seat belts in the helicopter is the date humanity 2.0 was set in motion. Six of us, crammed together. A brain physicist. A bestselling political scientist. A neurologist specializing in neural pathways for empathy. A multi-awarded Harvard professor in leadership science. A robotics expert, co-designer of the first artificial brain. And myself, an anthropologist dedicated to uncovering the role and features of leaders in human societies. Given our pedigrees, we knew each other by name or from having crossed paths on panels. And while there was obvious respect, no particular affinities transpired. Perhaps because we all scored pretty high on the introvert scale or were suspicious of what lay ahead, hardly a word was spoken during the entire ride.

The helicopter descended on the top terrace of the glass building. Elie’s central and impressive headquarters were the logical choice for a kick-off meeting. After offboarding, an assistant ushered us through a maze of corridors while making us sign NDAs, waiver of rights, and other documents restricting our freedoms. We turned a final corridor and found ourselves with the who’s-who of the tech world, faces we mortals only caught a glimpse of on the cover of Times, cited in a top 10 billionaires, or enlisted for a Nobel. Here they were, mingling over coffee and pastries, like normal human beings. Were they actual friends despite the media creating animosity for sensationalism, or was the new project of such scope that entente was a prerequisite for success?

Their conversations slowly died out, and attention shifted towards us. I had always suffered from imposter syndrome, but couldn’t help notice disappointment flash through their eyes, as if we were not the group of saviors that had been expected.

Elie took center stage: “Democracy is slowly slipping away under the current presidency. Due to the unwillingness of the opposition to provide a sufficiently powerful alternative, our mission is to create one from scratch.” Being dramatic certainly was Elie’s forte. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to the four CEOs exposing their plan for the next seven years and the preliminary work initiated, from the creation of a new political party, FutureVision, to the full military, economic and judicial data compiled for training benefit. The goal was as clear as ambitious: present an AI candidate for the 2028 elections.

We were eventually asked to briefly introduce ourselves, provide a quick overview of our latest research, and high-level thoughts on the project. I could tell the same thoughts were spiraling in all our minds: our rationale brain rejected the insane proposal, yet if there ever was a group of people who could pull it off, it was these tech geniuses. They had gone their entire lives facing doubt, criticism, rebuttals, yet had proved their detractors wrong time after time, even while fiercely combatting each other. Together? Sky was the limit, just as it had been in 1969. And none of them wanted to walk out that room and risk becoming the new Nolan Bushnell.

The first months, we chartered the job description, scope of work, and required skills. With numerous egos in one place, discussions were harsh, outbursts frequent, and quick syncs could run through the night. A brainstorm on analyzing judicial data digressed into a trolley problem around the moral choices an artificial leader should make, further highlighting the radically different visions the CEOs held.

The longest debate by far was on the appearance our candidate should bear, raising more issues than it solved regarding selection of gender and race. Zack fought for a user-friendly interface, but would the public accept a virtual president as their representative? Building a robot with realistic human-like movements also raised the hardware requirements to an entirely new stratosphere. After desperate pleads, nasty emails and vicious lobbying, a consensus was reached: all efforts would focus on the state-of-the-art AI, while a humanoid would be built from the waist up only to deliver key televised appearances from behind the presidential desk. Appearance and personality would be determined from user votes during the FutureVision primaries. Democracy didn’t get much better than selecting temperament in addition to policies.

The next months and years flew in a blur of intellectual vertigo and coding frenzy – only delivering an artificial leader prototype mattered. Fifty of the world’s best engineers had been secretly hired to join the effort. The great unveiling to our sponsors occurred on a late January afternoon of 2024. For months they had insisted on catching a glimpse of it, ruthlessly reminding us they were the ones financing the venture. We combatted investment-lust by exposing risk of failure, postponing the event until we successfully crossed the desolated uncanny valley, riddled with skeletons of prematurely tested prototypes.

Mimicking a real-life presidential election, each team member had cast their vote, giving life to Minerva1, a strong-featured woman of Indian-Mexican descent with sparkling turquoise eyes. She uttered her first mesmerizing words, “Hello world”, to an audience in awe, before proceeding to expose her program, in short, clear logically-flowing points. Only when Jedd whispered to himself how incredible this unveiling was did I fully grasp what had been accomplished.

But the sensation was ephemeral. A milestone had been reached, but our final objective still lay ahead. Minerva was relentlessly tested and improved. How would she react to a mass shooting in Ohio? A devastating typhoon in the Philippines? The accidental death of a Head of State? A sudden economic slowdown? A global pandemic? The primary concern was to avoid another Tay fiasco, a Microsoft chatbot who became a fervent nazi 16 hours after public release. Our strategy of intertwining extra layers of empathy pathways within the core neural net and adding well-balanced random seeds within the circuits to prevent deterministic decisions paid off.

The sheer brilliance emanated from Minerva’s program to be entirely fueled by her electorate, with every single voter contributing the exact same weight to her decisions, the philosophy literally relying on ‘wisdom of crowds’ work, according to which the decisions of a sufficiently diverse group usually outperform those from any single member, no matter how experienced and educated on the topic. Despite individual extremes in our voting preferences and that a mere hundred had voted instead of millions, the choice of leader made by collective intelligence was incredibly wise.

Jedd and Zack demonstrated their business-acumen, promoting Minerva through their well-established platforms. Billy’s philanthropic efforts contributed to endorse the artificial candidate. Allowing Minerva to be legally added to the ballot required reinterpretation of key parts of the Constitution. Providentially, the sitting president who viewed the robot as a mere publicity stunt, also recognized a unique opportunity to appeal to the pro-tech voter base, and abetted the legal process. Minerva was officially approved for the 2028 elections.

Whether the excellence of the coding team, the critical distance of our multidisciplinary research group, the CEOs’ lobbying efforts, or a combination of all these, fact was Minerva became viral. Having underestimated the tech-savviness of the electorate – or its repudiation of traditional politics – the president was taken by surprise by Minerva’s growing success. Ill-prepared to face-off against a candidate radically different from his usual 80-year old white male opponents with well-established arguments, the president succumbed to Minerva’s overwhelming victory. Based on the election results, Minerva’s features were altered and she was rebaptized Caroline Voisin. The president-elect hadn’t even officially taken office that democracy was an active force.  

However having helped cut corners, the defeated president knew exactly how to invalidate the election, claim fraudulent results, and declare Caroline ineligible. The following months threw the country into turmoil, airwaves saturated by hearings, polls, debates, and expert interviews. The courts ultimately ruled in annulling the elections and the current government was renewed under extraordinary circumstances.

The experiment of a lifetime could have stopped there and then. We could all have congratulated each other for having gone so far already, and discussed for hours what could almost have been, never to see each other again aside from the occasional bump-ins at a conference in Zurich or Buenos Aires. We could all have gone home with something to tell our wide-eyed grandkids one day.

It could have, but it didn’t.

After packing my bags, I visited the main research lab one last time, capturing memories. The desk I had spent every single day those past seven years, earphones blasting rage rock as I furiously designed real-life scenarios to evaluate our AI’s performance and progress. The spot where Billy had slipped and spilled burning coffee over himself. The whiteboard through which Elie had punched. The lab was empty aside from a few researchers collecting their belongings.

As I drew closer to the elevator with a pang of nostalgia, I heard Elie screaming through the glass doors of the central server room for Caroline’s interface, which would have moved to the presidential office if all had gone to fruition. A chair flew across the room, bouncing off the table with a sound of crunching metal before it vanished from my line of vision. Now hunched over the keyboard, Elie frantically typed. I assumed it was an incendiary email to judges, journalists, or an open letter to the president. I never imagined he was focusing Caroline’s attention on her defeat, altering the raw inputs of her code.

Whether Elie had fully anticipated what would happen next is anyone’s guess and his true intentions were taken to his grave with him. He had wanted Caroline to be as enraged as he was, as all her electorate was at the latest outrage pulled by the president. ‘Wisdom of crowds’ works when the crowd is sufficiently diverse and extremes balance out. But on the night of the ruling, as the vast majority of Caroline’s electorate felt robbed of their voting rights, fury was the overwhelming emotion across the country.

One hundred million angry people does not make a wise crowd. Not even close.


Published by Sylvia

Futurist - Futures Thinking & Strategic Foresight

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