African wild dogs vote on whether or not to hunt by sneezing. As a social species, they institute a form of democracy. A tally is taken of those voting to hunt, with a vote being signaled by a sneeze. Have humans really transcended such one-dimensional voting mechanisms? In ancient Greece, all members of a community gathered to address important issues. As civilizations grew larger, this became impossible, but the need for in-person debate and deliberation remained. Here is where representative democracy comes into play; an elected official can debate on behalf of their local constituency. As the world's population has grown, this regime has come under strain as the trust and communication that underpin liberal democracy have dwindled. This is the motivator for the idea (Augmented Assembly) outlined below: an AI-aided mechanism to transform the voter from a passive participant to an active contributor.
What is Augmented Assembly
Democracy has a communication problem. Currently, an individual can directly affect politics in two main ways: by signing petitions or by voting in elections. Petitions force you to choose a side, either supporting or opposing a position - providing politicians with a purely quantitative perspective of public opinion. Elections are vulnerable to populists, as voters often know more about a candidate’s persona than their policy positions. Augmented Assembly is a proposed system to be built on top of representative democracy that uses Artificial Intelligence to provide individuals with increased involvement in and feedback from the political process.
How Does it Alter Petitioning
Petitions merely tally a number of signatures and act as the simplest mechanism by which to assess the level of public support for an idea. Augmented Assembly proposes that when an individual indicates support (or opposition) for a petition, they also have the option of providing an explanation for their position. Artificial Intelligence has the ability to summarise large volumes of data, such as vast amounts of opinions, so it could create a summary of the reasoning that individuals used when signing the petition. When a petition is presented to Congress/Parliament, it could now be accompanied by an overview of public opinion, activating the public voice and transforming the voter from a number into a contributor.
How Does it Alter Elections
The voting record of Congress/ Parliament is a matter of public record. However, it only provides one-dimensional feedback about the decisions of incumbent politicians, and voters are often unaware of this data during an election. In a system of Augmented Assembly, each voter can easily access a qualitative (non-numerical) summary of the similarities between their positions and those of any participating political candidate. This is done through Artificial Intelligence comparing the reasoning for both of their positions. The summary is generated for incumbent politicians based on their historic positions, voting record, and corresponding reasoning. It may be generated similarly for political aspirants by considering their suggested policies. This provides the public with a better understanding of the actions and motivations of those they elect to represent them.
Similarities with Current Democracies
In small societies, democracy can easily be direct, with all members of the community gathering to address important issues. This becomes impossible as civilizations get larger, yet the necessity for in-person debate and deliberation remains. This is mostly accomplished in two ways: either a representative proportion of the population is selected (e.g., at a citizens' assembly) or representatives are elected by the public to argue on their behalf. Augmented Assembly binds these approaches, much as is attempted in the legal system. In court, a jury provides an opinion on a case, which is summarized in an issue paper and presented to the judge, who determines the final outcome. In Augmented Assembly, the public provides an opinion on a petition, which is summarized and presented to Congress/ Parliament, who determine the final outcome.
How Would it be Implemented
Most likely, Augmented Assembly would be deployed as a website/app. In practice, this app may have sections for trending petitions, subject-specific petitions, debate, topic education, petition authoring, and other features. However, who should host such an important system? The private sector would foster innovation, enable speedy deployment on possibly pre-existing user bases, and help to include those who have the most suspicion of government. However, the use of users' data, security concerns, and the impact of commercial interests on the democratic process would have to be carefully regulated. The public sector might also try such a system and benefit more readily from pre-existing procedures resulting from the signing of formal petitions.
Concerns with Augmented Assembly
Many of the potential challenges and advantages of Augmented Assembly would be caused by inductive biases built into the user experience; here are some questions that demonstrate the relevance of design decisions. How is foreign influence avoided and identity verification implemented? How is it ensured that when the AI summarizes public opinion on a petition, it is able to express the contributions of relevant minorities? What is a suitable level of gamification for the user interface? How can the concept of politicians sometimes having to 'vote with their party' explained to users? How could it be ensured that the public's summaries of political candidates are not overly punitive when it comes to necessary but difficult political decisions?
Is it Related to Augmented Democracy
Augmented Democracy is the idea of involving online avatars, with ‘beliefs’ similar to your own, in the political process. Both of these systems seek to enhance the user interface of democracy, but they differ in whether the primary issue they want to address is communication or cognitive bandwidth. Augmented Assembly argues that our current political discourse (communication) distorts and diminishes the energy that breathes life into democracy. Augmented Democracy argues that the more fundamental problem is insufficient cognitive bandwidth, and thus it outsources some of our policy creation (and voting) to artificial agents. Depending on whether you agree with the core tenants of Augmented Democracy or not, Augmented Assembly can either represent a first step or an unrelated tweak to our current political order.
An Antidote to the 3Ps
The 3Ps of populism, post-truth, and polarization are terms used to define the toolkit of those seeking to undermine liberal democracy. When used, these techniques hijack our cognitive biases, eschew nuance, and calcify discourse into an existential battle between a corrupt elite and a righteous people. Augmented Assembly addresses the 3Ps in a number of ways: it seeks to engage those who may feel excluded from the political process; creates a more evidence-based approach to voting; and helps to humanize those in office through more expressive communication pathways. Further design features could easily be added to amplify the effect on the 3Ps, such as giving the user examples of reasoning for different positions, the opportunity for one-on-one debates with other users, and potentially even expert opinions, before they submit their position on a petition.
What Can I do
If you like this idea, then the immediate action that you could take is to share it with anyone, from friends to family, from politicians to podcasters. Beyond this, critiques of and attempts at implementing systems in the spirit of Augmented Assembly are extremely useful and important ways that you can help the cause. Furthermore, Augmented Assembly is just one approach among many that consider how technology may be used to help embolden democracy; it does not claim to be a unique or novel approach but merely aims to provide a point of condensation among many brilliant ideas. If you want to learn more about a few related approaches, explore the ‘Useful Sources’ section on our website Augmented Assembly.