Can we Replace Politicians with Algorithms?

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  • The huge advances in the development of algorithms and big data has impacted how government decisions are made. Here Dr Norman Apsley OBE, CEO Catalyst Inc, gives his thoughts on the subject, in advance of our upcoming Connect at Catalyst Inc 4IRC debate on 12th December.

    "Many of you will know that Catalyst Inc is running a series of futurology workshops focussing on our local view of what the future of work and lifestyle might be in the era when widespread automation, robotics meets the fully connected world in a decade not too far in the future – what is referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution. However much I’ve mused on the subject, never did I even consider this one; such is the power and wisdom of the crowd!

    With our current political impasse still upon us as I write, the question provokes much flippant and amusing responses but I’ll leave those to others. Seriously, could computers win our hearts and minds, sufficient to lead our country?

    As I was growing up there were serious pundits of the future who always got it wrong and were to be avoided but then there were the masters of Science Fiction. This genre had legends of the art. Of course there was Jules Verne, creator of the fictional Captain Nemo, literary antecedent of the very real Cousteau clan of marine adventurer biologists but my favourite and apposite for this piece was Isaac Asimov. The film “I robot” will have been seen by many but it does not do justice to the books which really explore how humans might seek to embed conscience and morals in a digital cortex. Who would have believed that in only a half century on, we all face the very real autonomous vehicles of all kinds and hence are already dependent on programmers and law makers getting that balance right.

    My all-time Asimov favourite though is the Foundation Trilogy (though there are four books as he decided to add a fourth long after the first three). These can be enjoyed as books or as an excellent BBC radio drama series; so I’ll try not to spoil the plot. Essentially the hero, long dead by the time of the out working of his thinking, has developed social science from mere statistical analysis and observation, into a truly predictive science, a social physics, if you like. He models the political and social state of play in his generation, then when he predicts a looming crisis, a new Dark Age, he plants seeds which are designed to bring the populated university back to order. The ups and downs of the process make gripping plots. The question is will this degree of certainty enter the reality of social science as it has done in robotics?

    I don’t know the answer, but this will be the subject of our next debate on 12th December at the Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry.

    What I do know is that we all must use the power of Automated Intelligence (AI) and algorithms to counter the bad politicians. Fake news, false history and Photoshopped salatious photos must be rooted out and denounced for what they are. The science of PR is imperfect but good enough for news to be weaponised for good and ill, in a population unable or unwilling to look behind the headlines. Azimov thought a genetic mutation might undo his hero’s plans but actually the reality might be in the same computers and networks that bring the positive benefits.

    The antidote is surely for society and its leaders in all walks of life, political and otherwise, to espouse integrity above all else, the first of the Catalyst Inc values as it happens, and not accidently!"

    Join in the debate on 12th December, 5.30pm at the Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry – register at

    Contributors include: Quintin Oliver, Stratagem NI, Ann-Marie Slavin, Modern Democracy, Colm Burns, Open Govt Network NI, Callum Curry, SUSSD and Jon Barnes, Author of Democracy Squared

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