June 19, 2018
PARIS — French mathematician and Fields Medal recipient Cédric Villani has devoted some of his formidable natural intelligence to the subject of artificial intelligence (AI), helping write a report that was submitted to the French government in March. He also knows a thing or two about politics having been elected as a national deputy last year. It is his belief, as surprising as it may sound, that AI and politics could very well have a future together.
"Even though not everything is clear yet, AI could become very useful in terms of politics, especially regarding the link between citizen and government," Villani states in the latest edition of Charles magazine.
"No one is supposed to be unaware of the law. But the law is a set of incomprehensible texts," he adds. That's where AI could come in. The mathematician turned lawmaker imagines a chatbot, for example, that could review all the articles in our dense legal codes in order to extract a substantial response to any particular legal question.
In Japan, an artificial intelligence program even ran for mayor of Tama, in the Tokyo region.
In a case like this, he argues, AI simply provides a service. But couldn't it also help politicians make decisions? After all, they argue with each other all year round. What if we let the machine decide instead? And what if the algorithm simply took their place? The idea may sound crazy, but 18% of French people believe that "AI could make better choices than elected officials, provided the final decision is made by a human being," according to an OpenText online survey of 2,000 people.
In Japan, an artificial intelligence program even ran for mayor of Tama, in the Tokyo region, in April. True, it was officially a human running for the post, Michihito Matsuda. But on his campaign posters you could see a robot with a female shape. Michihito Matsuda, had he won, wanted to let AI determine policy using the data at its disposal. The political project didn't win the support of the population, but still obtained 9.31% of the votes, or more than 4,000 votes.
Michihito Matsuda's campaign posters in Tama — Photo: Samim/Twitter
In France, the Sorbonne University"s computer lab developed a piece of software called WorkSim to assess the consequences of employment policies. In 2016, it estimated that the labor reform that attracted such strong opposition would bring unemployment down by 0.5% in the short term but would have no long-term impact.
The model was also trained to find solutions, one of which the two researchers who developed it happened to disagree. For Jean-Daniel Kant, the most effective measure suggested was a reduction in working time, while for his colleague, Gérard Ballot, it was better to reinforce training. This is a good example of how the machine can produce results but shouldn't necessarily make decisions. Humans are still needed to interpret those results.
At the Boston Consulting Group, Managing Director Sylvain Duranton has worked on optimizing a city's transportation network with the help of an AI system. All of the data — schedules, the number of trains, the number of passengers — were crunched to achieve increased efficiency. Optimizing efficiency, however, meant eliminating certain steps. And that, from a social-justice standpoint, is problematic. Here again is an example of how results and the decisions they suggest don't necessarily match up.
In the Boston Consulting Group case, determining the extent to which traffic reductions could be allowed at certain locations was a highly political issue. A numerical value thus had to be integrated into the algorithm in order to correct its conclusions, a term value that is not just a pure etymological accident.
When an algorithm is corrected, the value that is integrated is an ideal value. "Models, despite their reputation for impartiality, reflect goals and ideologies," writes mathematician Cathy O'Neil in her 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction. "When I removed the possibility for my family of eating Pop-Tarts at every meal, I was imposing my ideology on the meals model," O'Neil explains.
When humans use algorithms to implement public policies, they must have the intellectual integrity to explain what they are aiming for, their goal, their horizon. Seeking economic efficiency isn't the same thing as seeking social justice... at least for an algorithm.
The mistake would be to think that efficiency and justice must be opposed. But isn't justice also a type of efficiency? When we refuse to isolate neighborhoods by guaranteeing them access to public transport, our goal is geographical cohesion, or even national unity. The argument can also be made that this cohesion serves economic efficiency, since it allows people to get to work at a lower cost.
Some human behaviors cannot be modeled.
Of course, we can imagine responding to these various imperatives by multiplying the variables, by integrating economic data, social data, environmental data, you name it. The problem is that the variables become countless and often contradictory. They may also lack methodological soundness. In its April 28 issue, The Economist reminded its readers that 80% of microeconomic studies exaggerated the reported results and that 90% of them relied on insufficient sample sizes. Even when studies help construct variables, the difficulty remains in knowing how to articulate them.
Another concern is that some human behaviors cannot be modeled. Otherwise, many parents would have understood long ago why their children, despite all of them being raised the same way, are so different. Still, artificial intelligence — like statistics before it — remains a useful scientific tool for developing and evaluating public policies. In the end, though, it's up to human beings to clearly say in which direction these policies should go.
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The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
David E. Kiwuwa
October 27, 2021
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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