Articles  |  ,   |  June 6, 2017

Will big data algorithms dismantle the foundations of liberalism?

Journal article by Daniel First.
Published in AI & Society.


In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that technological advances of the twenty-first century will usher in a significant shift in how humans make important life decisions. Instead of turning to the Bible or the Quran, to the heart or to our therapists, parents, and mentors, people will turn to Big Data recommendation algorithms to make these choices for them. Much as we rely on Spotify to recommend music to us, we will soon rely on algorithms to decide our careers, spouses, and commitments. Harari also predicts that next, the state will take away individuals’ rights to make their own choices about their lives. If Google knows where your children would flourish best in school, why should the state allow a fallible human parent to decide? Liberalism—which, as Harari uses this term, refers to a state of society in which human freedom to choose is respected and championed—will collapse.

In this paper, I argue that Harari’s conception of the future implications of recommendation algorithms is deeply flawed, for two reasons. First, users will not rely on algorithms to make decisions for them because they have no reason to trust algorithms, which are developed by companies with their own incentives, such as profit. Second, for most of our life decisions, algorithms will not be able to be developed, because the factors relevant to the decisions we face are unique to our situation. I present an alternative depiction of the future: instead of relying on algorithms to make decisions for us, humans will use algorithms to enhance our decision-making by helping us consider the most relevant choices first and notice information we might not otherwise. Finally, I will also argue that even if computers could make many of our decisions for us, liberalism as a political system would emerge unscathed.