What is this project about?

This project critically evaluates the interaction between humans and artificially intelligent, algorithm-based systems of governance. It focuses on the role of algorithms in public decision-making processes and the increased integration between humans and technology. It will examine the political legitimacy of algorithmic governance, and connect this with the ongoing debates about the desirability of transcending human limitations through technological enhancement. In doing so, it highlights an important social problem and brings together disparate and previously disconnected areas of scholarship.

The past decade has seen an explosion in big data analytics and the use of algorithm-based systems to assist, supplement or replace human decision-making. This is true in private industry and in public governance. Dormehl (2014) lists numerous cases in which algorithms are used to replace or assist legal-bureaucratic decision-making. These include, for example, the use of algorithms in healthcare policy and treatment, in identifying potential tax cheats, and in stopping terrorist plotters. Such systems are attractive in light of the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of society; the general ubiquity and efficiency of ‘smart’ technology; and the cutbacks to government services post-2008. Given the growing influence of the technology lobby, and the likely future advances in artificial intelligence and automation, this trend can only be set to continue. This trend can be referred to as the rise of algocracy (i.e. rule by algorithm).

The past decade has also seen significant growth in the transhumanist movement (broadly construed). This is a movement that tries to use technology to transcend the limitations of human biology. Although prevalent in the academy, the transhumanist movement is also common in the arts, civil society, industry and, more recently, politics. Indeed, one of the most interesting developments in the transhumanist movement in the past 12 months has been the emergence of transhumanist political parties in England, Australia and the United States, with one prominent US transhumanist (Zoltan Istvan) even mounting a presidential bid for 2016. At its most extreme end, the transhumanist movement wishes to inaugurate the total fusion of humanity and technology. The most outlandish variant of this dream involves the ‘uploading’ of human minds to a digital/technological substrate, and the saturation of material reality with intelligent machines (Kurzweil 2006). More modest and technologically feasible versions of the transhumanist project wish to supplement and augment human cognition and biology with technological aids.

This project is premised on the assumption that the rise of algocracy and the rise of the transhumanist movement are connected in important ways. In particular, it believes that the rise of algocracy poses a threat to the value-structure of the liberal-democratic state – a threat that the transhumanist project may help us to resolve or, more radically, embrace. This connection has been ignored in much of the extant scholarship in this area. This project tries to correct for this omission.