democracy, dictatorship and AI

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book is fascinating, so fascinating, in fact, that I am reading it at a slow pace. There is simply too much to think about. Here is an example, from chapter 3, “Liberty”, subtitled “Big Data is Watching You”.

In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing. A democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given twentieth century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much power and information in one place. ….This is part of the reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, soon AI [artificial intelligence] might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. …. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century–the attempt to concentrate all information in one place–might become their decisive advantage in the twenty-first century.

Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), p 66.

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