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Can democracy survive the “polycrisis”?

The dangers of AI? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

We are living in a so-called “polycrisis”, says George Soros in the Australian Financial Review. This has three main sources, the first of which is AI. The rapid development of artificial intelligence reminds me of Goethe’s poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Asked by his master to sweep the floor, the apprentice casts a spell to get his broom to do it for him. But he doesn’t fully understand the magic, so the broom goes rogue, fetching bucket after bucket of water until the whole house is flooded. This, essentially, is the danger we face with AI. Problem is, the world is dominated by a conflict between two systems of governance: open and closed societies. In an open society, the state defends the freedom of the individual; in a closed society, the individual serves the interests of the rulers. AI is good at producing “instruments of control” to surveil subjects, so it’s helpful to closed societies. To open societies, it’s a “mortal threat”.

The second source of the polycrisis is climate change. The key problem here is that most people, given the choice between curbing global greenhouse gas emissions and protecting their livelihood, would understandably choose the latter. Current climate policies will leave the Earth between 2.5C and 2.7C hotter by 2100 – a disaster that would cause the collapse of all the big biomes, from the rainforest to permafrost to marine biology. The third source is the Ukraine war. This, however, is going better than expected. The Russian army has proved to be a “paper tiger”, and Ukraine’s heroic. If Kyiv’s counter-offensive is successful, it could result in the dissolution of Vladimir Putin’s dream; a “lessening of Sino-American tensions”; and leaders concentrating on the world’s existential threats. Trouble is, the path to this positive outcome is “narrow and winding”. So it remains to be seen “whether democracy can survive the polycrisis”.