We humans are giving up control over our lives to non-human entities that don’t have our best interests at heart. No, that isn’t strong enough. We’re inviting it.
This isn’t some bizarre conspiracy theory. It isn’t some sensational but unlikely rise-of-the-machines here-comes-Skynet fear mongering.
It’s a conclusion that’s inescapable if you’re even minimally aware of current events. Consider:
Factoid #1: Not only humans are persons
Starting with Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad and continuing recently with Citizens United v FEC, corporations now have the legal right to influence our elections, on the theory that corporations are persons too, or, if not persons entirely, than imbued with significant levels of personhood.
I’m not going to argue with SCOTUS. But I do have a question: Shouldn’t reciprocity reign? If corporations are people, why can’t all people be corporations? In addition to a lower tax rate, we’d get more deductions, too. After all, when a corporation buys a car it can depreciate it on its tax returns. Human persons can’t. Why not? Because we aren’t allowed to be corporations.
Factoid #2: Algorithms
In case it’s escaped your notice, the stock market has been what’s euphemistically described as “volatile” recently. Those who write about such things are calling it a correction, as they think the market was overvalued, not that many of them said so before the volatility began. But some are also suggesting that algorithmic trading has had a lot to do with, if not the market’s decline in value, then very likely the wild swings we’ve seen during the decline.
Algorithmic trading is something done by non-human entities. Automata. And the decisions made by these automata have a significant influence on our economy and financial wellbeing.
Factoid #3: The rise of the ‘bots
Recent research reveals that more than 25 million Tweeters are actually ‘bots — 9 % or more, which in the last election accounted for an estimated one out of every five political tweets or more.
Are these automata influencing things? After all, just retweeting something … or Liking it if we’re talking about Facebook … isn’t an act of persuasion, merely an act of repetition. It makes someone’s voice louder, not more convincing. Except that it does, in two respects.
First, ‘bots don’t announce “Hey, this is just one ‘bots’ opinion!” in their retweets. They pose as humans, and they adopt a demeanor that says they’re the same sort of people as their intended audience. That people like themselves think in a certain way is, to many people, quite a strong influencer. ‘Bots might not broadcast debate-team-worthy rhetoric, but they do broadcast the message “Here’s what members-in-good-standing of our tribe believe.”
When 25 million of them broadcast that message, many of those who want to be Members of Tribe in good standing will find themselves thinking the same way without spending much time to ponder, let alone to independently research the topic, whatever it is.
Worse, they’re likely to become even more tribal through the same dynamic.
Even those who aren’t tribalists are likely to be influenced by Twitter ‘bots, too, because when to all appearances 25 million people appear to have adopted an opinion … more when you add tweets by actual humans to the numbers … it legitimizes a view that reasonable human beings might otherwise consider utterly preposterous.
So here’s what I’m thinking: If everyone who lives in a democracy is concerned about covert Russian influence over our elections … and that certainly isn’t an unreasonable concern to have … then shouldn’t we be even more concerned that increasingly, non-humans are taking control of our economy, politics, and lives?
I suggest some civic-minded lawyer bring a fundamental question to SCOTUS, namely, what are the boundaries of the rights of non-human persons? Start with the First Amendment and whether it applies only to human persons, or whether all entities, human and non-human alike, should enjoy its protections.
The existing carve-out for the press should certainly be maintained, although what constitutes “the press” might need a bit of clarification.
Beyond that, though, it should be neither difficult nor controversial to insist that only we human-being-style persons have the unrestricted right to express ourselves.
Sure, if aliens from another planet or human-like androids become our friends and neighbors we might need to revisit all this, just as the United Federation of Planets did when Commander Data’s humanity was called into legal question.
But we aren’t at that crossroads just yet. Right now we find ourselves faced with just one last question: Is this supposed to be satire, or should you take it seriously?
I only wish I knew.