I attended the first press session when Citizens’ Assembly was announced in the UK to discuss Climate Change and must admit I was very impressed by the genuine effort to bring both sides of the argument and scientific evidence into the same room. It has also been very successful in other countries like Ireland when dealing with controversial issues like gay civil partnership and abortion. There is no public appetite nor awareness for a robust AI/Data guidelines legislative framework and a Citizens’ Assembly might change that.
Citizens’ Assembly is when a group of adult members of society, usually within a geographical area or country, is formed to discuss an important issue and bring forward possible policies to solve a problem or vote a change in legislation within a set period of time. The reasoning is that when a group of citizens are given fact-checked knowledge, contrasting opinions, time and resources; a well-informed adult is in a better position to provide recommendations and a verdict. It is a useful tool to engage citizens when people feel disengaged and not listened to in the democratic process and heal wounds, especially on sensitive issues like abortion. Participants do not have to change their mind, but conclude with a better understanding of a different opinion, according to some statistics shown below.
The most common system to invite citizens is called sortition. It is a random selection of members of the society with a particular interest demographic collectives (like gender, race, social status, political ideology) are represented. Thus, it legitimises the recommendations as the popular will and politicians and policymakers feel supported to execute them. They become more aware of what can be accepted and what cannot. It is of unique usefulness with issues like abortion or gay marriage. It highlights other issues that are not prevalent on people’s radar like data privacy or climate change.
Why we need Citizens’ Assemblies as an effective informative tool
Misinformation leads to fake news and casting a vote based on untruths on controversial issues like immigration or taxation. Knowledge asymmetry and lack of time are also illnesses of the current society. Citizens’ Assemblies can help to solve that. Television and social media can increase access to the information, participation and engagement in varied forms. People are compensated for their time, since it is voluntary, using various systems like time off from work, financial, travel and accommodation assistance. It is vital to guarantee the representation of the underprivileged who would not be able to participate otherwise.
Members as a collective are free from special interests from campaign donors and business and ideological pursuits and an acute awareness of the real world. Politicians and university professors can sometimes enjoy a cosy existence isolated by the real issues faced by ordinary citizens. Also, a neutral third party is the best way to guarantee independency when running the assembly. At the same time, the presentations are checked by NGOs and bodies with legitimate expertise, and possible conflicts of interests declared.
Televised and public available recordings are essential to show transparency. It can also extend engagement and access to more objective information. Members of the public need to know that other fellow citizens are working on an issue on their behalf.
It can bring awareness about an issue that it is not as relevant as it should be. For example, in the case of Data Privacy, the general public is not fully aware of how their data is collected and sold to third parties and used to manipulate behaviour. According to Shoshana Zuboff :
Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours.
Finally, Citizens’ Assemblies facilitate critical thinking. Participants find easier to form an informed decision about a topic and to reason how they got there.
When we discuss the importance of regulating data privacy and new technologies, another recurrent argument is that it might delay innovation and would harm consumers. The same argument was used when new chemicals were invented. They ended harming the environment and the surrounding population, which could have been avoided by implementing safety measures. The welfare of humans, other living creatures, and the environment needs to be prioritised over any possible unchecked innovation.
Earlier versions of Citizens’ Assemblies can be traced back to the Council of the Elders, still predominant in some tribes, and Athens 6th century BC. Also Rousseau discusses the Will of the People and Citizens’ Assemblies as a model to create laws approved and respected by all in his influential book: The Social Contract. However, they were limited in the representation of the population.
Citizens’ Assemblies are becoming more common, and several countries have made use of at different degrees and for different topics. Examples are:
- Ireland on many issues including abortion, climate change and gender equality
- UK and France on climate change
- Scotland on the future of Scotland
- Australia on nuclear waster storage
- Germany on democracy
- Canada and Holland on electoral reform
- Since September 2019, Belgium has a permanent Citizens’ Assembly (Bürgerversammlungen)
Citizens’ Assembly UK views from the participants were positive as shown below, and themes that recurred throughout their discussions were on the need for: improved information and education for all on climate change; fairness, including across sectors, geographies, incomes and health; freedom and choice for individuals and local areas; and strong leadership from the government .
The Citizens’ Assemblies model usually follows a process in three stages: learning, deliberation, and deciding which recommendations to put forward. A team of neutral facilitators supports the participants. Their job is to make sure everybody enjoys a fair share of contribution and feel comfortable in a safe and respectful environment.
Adding to this elementary stage, I would like to include an extra session where the participants listen to two opposite opinions. For example, in the case of data privacy: why it is so important to prioritise data privacy and reduce the collection of data as much as possible. Possible reasons can be asymmetric knowledge, the tech companies know far too much about us, and we do not know its use and who have this data. Another reason can be the use of data to manipulate behaviours, as it has been in the past with voter deterrence in the 2016 US presidential election. Democrat-leaning black voters were presented with defamatory videos of Hillary Clinton to deter them from voting in a well-orchestrated campaign by Cambridge Analytica . In order to do, specific sets of individual data need to be collected. Another concern, out of many, is that even if individual sets of data are kept separate, sophisticated algorithms can link them to a specific person with great accuracy. On the other side of the argument, Youtube, for example, has democratised access to knowledge and education. Generations of students from low-income backgrounds can now access education from top universities like Harvard and up-to-date research. When put to fair use, social media creates nurturing and supportive communities as we have seen during this pandemic by the set up of local voluntary groups. A more effective moderation needs to be put in place to enhance the benefits and mitigate or remove harm. Our data can be used as evidence to support collective social interests and needs.
It is important to contrast two opposite opinions for three reasons. Firstly, we do not seem to differentiate between a fact and an opinion. It is very dangerous. The media has blurred the boundaries. It is much cheaper to provide an opinion, rather than an expensive and well-researched investigation. Its emotional content connects better with the viewers and reaches a more significant audience share and retention. Organising a fact-checked presentation and opinions facilitates understanding how different the two can be and have a more objective view of the world. Secondly, participants would probably have heard some opinions through social and traditional media and could become distrustful if those are not introduced in one way or another during the sessions. Finally, it raises a better understanding of the opposite opinion and how they arrive there. It fosters a more respectful coexistence among a variety of views. It is also an excellent opportunity to debunk fake news and misinformation.
The white paper by the European Union on AI provides a comprehensive introduction to guarantee a broad and fair coverage on the key issues :
The aim of the Guidelines is to promote Trustworthy AI. Trustworthy AI has three components, which should be met throughout the system’s entire life cycle: (1) it should be lawful, complying with all applicable laws and regulations (2) it should be ethical, ensuring adherence to ethical principles and values and (3) it should be robust, both from a technical and social perspective since, even with good intentions, AI systems can cause unintentional harm. Each component in itself is necessary but not sufficient for the achievement of Trustworthy AI. Ideally, all three components work in harmony and overlap in their operation. If, in practice, tensions arise between these components, society should endeavour to align them [..] Develop, deploy and use AI systems in a way that adheres to the ethical principles of: respect for human autonomy, prevention of harm, fairness and explicability. Acknowledge and address the potential tensions between these principles.
1. Do you think Citizens’ Assemblies can be useful to make a complex threat such as data privacy abuse and malpractice on AI more understandable to the general public?
I certainly do. I have facilitated myself a complex Citizen Assembly made of 140 citizens from 9 different countries with the mandate to deliberate neurotechnologies, and I have witnessed first hand the dynamics of true democracy. The public needs to be directly involved in the debate on data and AI, and citizen assemblies is a very effective method to do so.
2. If so, what would be the key issues to discuss? Like explainability, making sure that algorithms are explained in a way that can be understood. Also that the programmers are in a position to do so avoiding black box problems. Risk impact, bias, and capacity to de-anonimise initially anonymous data.
I think the key issues should be around the whole range of ethics of AI. Starting from who and how personal data are collected, and how their use is governed, to what should be the role and responsibility of human programmers and software companies in embedding AI systems in their products and services. And, importantly, how should AI systems be embedded in government systems and what should be the proper oversight and regulation for those systems. Finally, how AI systems that automate work and reduce the number of available jobs will create economic dividends that can be shared with the people who lose their jobs.
3. What would the expected outcomes be?
The two most important outcomes would be (a) the public accepting the use of AI and not pushing back; which is important for liberal democracies to retain their technological and competitive advantage; (b) the public being directly involved in the shaping of the digital economy so there is a fairer distribution of the value that AI systems will create.
We live in an era of misinformation, fake news, the polarisation of opinions, profound distrust towards institutions, growing inequality, and a sense of powerlessness by ordinary citizens resulting in political disengagement. Data privacy and AI have their own share of myths, unrealistic expectations, lack of regulation and misinformation. Adding to this, access to information is mainly done online and controlled by an oligarchy of technological companies. We do not surf the internet anymore; we move from one monopoly to another monopoly. In these bleak times, we seem to return to the Middle Ages when access to knowledge was held in hand-written books watchfully guarded in libraries and monasteries and access cautiously restricted by the Church.
These factors, and the unknown aftermath of a global pandemic, are the perfect recipe for what could be authoritarian regimes — either in plain sight or deceived as democracy. It might not get that dire in democratic states, but it might be the time for a more participatory form of democracy. We face unprecedented challenges like climate change, data privacy, artificial intelligence and globalisation on a truly world scale. Citizens’ Assemblies might be one of the tools to help to solve those problems. I strongly believe so.
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