The Council of Europe has published a declaration warning about the potential impact of AI and big data on democratic society.
Bearing the catchy title "Declaration by the Committee of Ministers on the manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes," the document was published February 13. It notes that digital services are becoming increasingly important in "political communication" between public institutions and citizens. And it warns of a growing potential for machine-learning technologies to skew this communication and manipulate public opinion.
Although the language of the declaration is a bit stiff, the message is very clear: "the targeted use of constantly expanding volumes of aggregated data," plus learning-system analytics, are putting our democratic societies at increasing risk.
"Public awareness... remains limited regarding the extent to which everyday devices collect and generate vast amounts of data," says the declaration. "These data are used to train machine-learning technologies to prioritise search results, to predict and shape personal preferences, to alter information flows, and, sometimes, to subject individuals to behavioural experimentation."
The gathering of "intimate and detailed" personal information "supports the sorting of individuals into categories," allowing online information to reinforce discriminatory attitudes along social, cultural or economic lines. "It also facilitates the micro-targeting of individuals based on profiles in ways that may profoundly affect their lives."
"...Machine learning tools have the growing capacity not only to predict choices but also to influence emotions and thoughts and alter an anticipated course of action, sometimes subliminally," warns the declaration. These data-driven techniques can be used to "manipulate and control" both economic choices (i.e. through targeted advertising) and political behaviors (through targeted propaganda).
The declaration further cautions that these technological tools are giving "significant power" to public and private actors who may use them "without adequate democratic oversight or control."
The Committee of Ministers encourages member states to consider the need for "protective frameworks" that can address this use of targeted data. It also calls for public debate on "where to draw the line" between "permissible persuasion and unacceptable manipulation."
Ultimately, the Committee calls for "effective legal guarantees" to be put in place, to curb the worst abuses and ensure that people "have access to comparable levels of information across the political spectrum."
Coincidentally, the non-profit research group OpenAI has just demonstrated the validity of the fears expressed by the Committee of Ministers.
OpenAI has released a limited version of a machine-learning system it calls Generative Pre-trained Transformer-2 (GPT-2). This system is able to generate complete ‘fake news' stories based on a short text sample. One of the group's examples starts with two sentences stating that unicorns have been discovered in the Andes. GPT-2 generates a lengthy, highly credible news story, with supporting quotes from a fictitious expert from the University of La Paz.
Historically, advertising and propaganda have needed to take a broad approach, targeting large swaths of the population using ‘hot button' issues or using other generic persuasion techniques. But it is now clear that today's massive data-gathering by governments and corporations, coupled with tools like GPT-2, can easily generate plausible ‘news stories' perfectly tailored to persuade specific individuals.
The declaration from the Committee of Ministers is one of the first signs that governmental bodies are becoming aware of the problem. Clearly, the public needs to be brought up to speed on the risks of these widely-deployed technologies. And governments need to be pressed for legislative action.
The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, France, is the original European body, founded in 1948 (45 years before the European Union) partly at the suggestion of Winston Churchill. It includes all the countries of the EU, plus a number of others (most notably Russia). The Committee of Ministers is comprised of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe.