It’s become fashionable to think of artificial intelligence as an inherently dehumanizing technology, a ruthless force of automation that has unleashed legions of virtual skilled laborers in faceless form. But what if AI turns out to be the one tool able to identify what makes your ideas special, recognizing your unique perspective and potential on the issues where it matters most?
You’d be forgiven if you’re distraught about society’s ability to grapple with this new technology. So far, there’s no lack of prognostications about the democratic doom that AI may wreak on the U.S. system of government. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned that AI could spread misinformation, break public comment processes on regulations, inundate legislators with artificial constituent outreach, help to automate corporate lobbying, or even generate laws in a way tailored to benefit narrow interests.
But there are reasons to feel more sanguine as well. Many groups have started demonstrating the potential beneficial uses of AI for governance. A key constructive-use case for AI in democratic processes is to serve as discussion moderator and consensus builder.
To help democracy scale better in the face of growing, increasingly interconnected populations – as well as the wide availability of AI language tools that can generate reams of text at the click of a button – the U.S. will need to leverage AI’s capability to rapidly digest, interpret and summarize this content.
An old problem
There are two different ways to approach the use of generative AI to improve civic participation and governance. Each is likely to lead to drastically different experience for public policy advocates and other people trying to have their voice heard in a future system where AI chatbots are both the dominant readers and writers of public comment.
For example, consider individual letters to a representative, or comments as part of a regulatory rulemaking process. In both cases, we the people are telling the government what we think and want.
For more than half a century, agencies have been using human power to read through all the comments received, and to generate summaries and responses of their major themes. To be sure, digital technology has helped.
In 2021, the Council of Federal Chief Data Officers recommended modernizing the comment review process by implementing natural language processing tools for removing duplicates and clustering similar comments in processes governmentwide. These tools are simplistic by the standards of 2023 AI. They work by assessing the semantic similarity of comments based on metrics like word frequency (How often did you say “personhood”?) and clustering similar comments and giving reviewers a sense of what topic they relate to.
Getting the gist
Think of this approach as collapsing public opinion. They take a big, hairy mass of comments from thousands of people and condense them into a tidy set of essential reading that generally suffices to represent the broad themes of community feedback. This is far easier for a small agency staff or legislative office to handle than it would be for staffers to actually read through that many individual perspectives.
But what’s lost in this collapsing is individuality, personality and relationships. The reviewer of the condensed comments may miss the personal circumstances that led so many commenters to write in with a common point of view, and may overlook the arguments and anecdotes that might be the most persuasive content of the testimony.
Most importantly, the reviewers may miss out on the opportunity to recognize committed and knowledgeable advocates, whether interest groups or individuals, who could have long-term, productive relationships with the agency.
Bruce Schneier, Harvard Kennedy School
and Nathan Sanders, Harvard University