AI in the Age of Reinvigorated Nationalism


In the global political landscape, discourse focuses on a nostalgia for “the good old days”. Where nostalgia is a motivating force, skepticism about the future rises, but what does this mean for the future of machine intelligence?

by Becky Willoughby Translate to Portuguese Clara Fagundes Photo Gaia Presidente

‘At Home in One’s Past’ is not the title of a new self-care podcast, but of a recently published report by DEMOS (the UK’s leading cross party political think tank) which examines nostalgia as a cultural and political force across Britain, France and Germany. Of the key findings present in the report, ultimately there was one overarching conclusion: people believe that life was better when they were growing up.

Nostalgia-driven narratives have played out across election campaigns in the world’s largest democracies in recent years and although the specific anchorage or brand of that nostalgia differs (determined by the specific socio-cultural history of a nation and what resonates with the society therein), the prevailing ‘feeling’ that the best days are behind us and the future is something to be feared unless varying forms of drastic action is taken, is now a familiar, election-winning formula. Nostalgia is a political lexicon symbiotically linked to a reinvigorated nationalism.

Progress in the arena of machine intelligence or AI (artificial intelligence) is also being shaped by these narratives of nationalism, with the emergence of two key trends in 2018; AI Nationalism and AI Nationalisation; terms describing a new kind of geopolitics, coined by Ian Hogarth in his essay of the same title, published in June 2018.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution beckons, and along with it universal connectivity between people, places and machines, greater than ever international cooperation would seem to be a logical progression route, but as is evident from the current (global) political landscape: logic doesn’t always win the day. As developed nations have started to pull together their individual AI strategies in 2018, there has been a re-aligning of focus towards sovereign supremacy i.e. how AI can be developed and used to geopolitical and military advantage (AI Nationalism) and a narrowing of the separation between the state and business for shared strategic objectives towards AI (AI Nationalization).

Now, before you ask Alexa to play your doomsday playlist in anticipation of an eternal winter, let’s – in an act of self care – first examine some models of good practice. Take Estonia, for example. It’s perhaps not surprising that the country that helped to develop Skype, introduced a paperless government and nationwide internet voting (just three examples among the impressively – and progressively – many for a small nation of 1.3 million residents) is forging ahead, at a faster rate than most, in its approach to machine intelligence.

Indeed, it’s impressive how AI is already being integrated into Estonian society, from the driverless parcel-delivery robots who were authorised by the Estonian parliament this year to move traffic without human assistants, to the plans in the works to give legal personality to artificial intelligence, but it’s the Estonian approach (philosophy, even) that sets them apart, and crucially, an approach that illustrates how you can cultivate (and protect) your own national interests without being extreme and protectionist about it, despite the Estonians having perhaps the best case on record for taking a nationalist approach, having only been liberated from Russia since 1991.  

Estonia’s (young and female) president, Kersti Kaljulaid, is also pushing an agenda of security for her nation, but recognises that the best way to do that is through global collaboration and by responding to what’s happening in Estonian society now, as illustrated by an interview she gave earlier this year to Wired: “In our case, also the government is within in the digital sphere. We recognize that there is the need to think about tax systems if people work in five different companies in five different countries at the same time. This needs to be sorted out. We cannot sort it alone, we need to sort it globally.”

What the Estonian example manages to highlight is the antithesis of nationalism and progress in a globalized world. Elsewhere, there are what could be described as positive ‘noises’ in the AI strategies of various nations but nothing as cohesive or consistent (or actually happening) as the Estonian approach, and where the good ideas flow, more questions tend to surface, particularly in societies where this idea of nostalgia is being channeled as an ideal.

There’s the development of the artificial intelligence (‘Rosie’) in Brazil that seeks to weed out corruption in the use of public finances by Brazilian congress politicians (“Operation Serenata de Amor”) and Rosie has her own twitter account where she posts her findings and tags the suspects (i.e. congress persons) to allow the public the opportunity to ask for clarification. That’s great, but it’s wholly crowdfunded to survive, and what will the effect of the election of a president like Jair Bolsonaro (who channeled during his political campaign a nostalgia for the days of dictatorship in Brazil, no less) have on the use and development of an AI like Rosie? What future do open source projects like Serenata have under what will arguably be an increasingly totalitarian governance?

Likewise in the U.K, the choice to vote to ‘leave’ the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum was largely driven by narratives of nostalgia, used to coerce feelings of fear about the future; in the ‘At Home in One’s Past’ DEVOS report, the majority of those surveyed (63 per cent) believed life was better when they were growing up.

A report published this year by the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence  (‘AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?’) concluded that the best way for it ‘lead’ in the arena of artificial intelligence was come at it from a distinctly moral angle, recommended by the committee as a way for the UK to “forge a distinctive role for itself as a pioneer in ethical AI”; which, if framed cynically, could be viewed as “which is the least expensive way for us to get ahead on this AI thing?” In a startling act of cognitive dissonance (all things Brexit considered, particularly in regards to anti-immigration sentiment), the report goes on to recommend, “…start-ups can struggle to scale up on their own. Our recommendations for a growth fund for SMEs and changes to the immigration system will help to do this”. It should also be noted, that to ‘lead’ from a moral angle on an international stage is a kind of nationalist approach of its own i.e. the idea of being a ‘civilising’ (read: colonial) force.

It remains to be seen how AI strategies will move forward against the backdrop of nationalist agendas and equally how long these narratives of nostalgia will hold sway in the societies they have been woven into, but when considering a defense mechanism against the progress-derailing effects of nostalgia, perhaps Neruda put it best:

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”


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