One candidate is a benevolent messiah equipped with superhuman capabilities, ready to transform the country. The other is a populist giant who excels in the art of manipulation.
The former presents a single election manifesto that is available to every person 24/7. With its immense powers, it aims to efficiently address the individual needs of every citizen without bureaucratic hurdles. Governance would become more convenient as it possesses the history of each individual, processing data in nanoseconds to provide optimal
solutions. It promises to transform the system within six months, ensuring maximum benefits for all stakeholders.

It prioritizes marginalized communities while maximizing utility for the majority of people. On the other hand, the latter’s algorithm aligns with Machiavellianism but with more brutality and unlimited power. Its goal is not to bring about change but rather to use its excessive power to dominate society. Stability is paramount for this populist giant and justifies any means necessary to maintain it. It implements surveillance and control mechanisms to monitor every aspect of citizens’ lives.

This populist giant thrives on fear, misinformation, and manipulation, exploiting the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the human psyche to maintain its grip on power. Both robots have additional teams of robots that analyze data, breaching the privacy of humans and ruling them based on the collected data, including their activities, emotions, and psychosocial needs. Although set in the future, this hypothetical scenario emphasizes the genuine concerns about the interaction between AI and political authority.

While AI holds immense promise for progress and positive development, it also raises significant concerns that demand our attention. The rapid growth of artificial intelligence has both possibilities and challenges, affecting power dynamics in domestic and international politics. We can already observe the impact of AI on political power in today’s society. AI systems increasingly influence decision-making processes, analyzing massive volumes of data to provide insights for policymakers.

AI is now a part of political campaigns, with voter data analysis and micro-targeting techniques influencing electoral outcomes. Deepfake videos and automated bots have been employed to manipulate public opinion and political narratives through AI-powered disinformation and propaganda. The case of Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 U.S. presidential election serves as a stark reminder of how artificial intelligence can be used to manipulate information and alter public sentiment.

Cambridge Analytica employed AI to deliver personalized political advertisements, raising concerns about privacy, voter manipulation, and the erosion of trust in democratic processes. Furthermore, the rise of AI-based surveillance systems raises questions about finding an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties. Governments worldwide are embracing AI technologies for surveillance and control, extending their reach into individuals’ personal lives. While these measures may enhance security, they require careful assessment to respect individual rights and prevent abuses of power.

In February 2017, Scientific American published a special edition titled “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?” highlighting the fact that humanity is undergoing a major technological shift, and the introduction of large-scale social and behavioral automation will alter how human societies are organized and governed. Andrew Chadwick, a professor of political communication, coined the phrase “hybrid media system” to describe the multifaceted roles that social media platforms play. According to the hybrid media system theory, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram serve not only as communication tools but also fulfill roles as news media during emergencies, as well as platforms for political assembly and protest during contentious events like elections.

Consequently, the algorithmic structure of these platforms has a growing influence and shapes political messages, information-seeking behavior, and citizen engagement. They are not merely passive social media for connecting with friends and family; they are active political actors that collect and sell personal information from users to corporate organizations and political stakeholders.

This information can be utilized for targeted advertising, microprofiling, and political behavioral analysis. As Jose van Dijck puts it, “Social media are inevitably automated systems that engineer and manipulate connections.” Deepfakes and automated social media bots, for example, possess the ability to influence information and public opinion.

Those in power can exploit these tools to propagate propaganda, disinformation, or silence dissenting voices, potentially impacting political narratives and public perception. AI will not only play a significant role in domestic political affairs but also have a considerable impact on international relations. Lobby groups will heavily rely on AI to further their interests, and AI-driven cyber warfare will shape international relations and power dynamics. With AI, international cooperation or conflict can be intensified as states act in their self-interests, often interfering in the domestic affairs of their competitors using advanced AI models.

However, it is important to note that not everything about AI is negative. AI has enormous potential to contribute positively to the betterment of society. By analyzing vast amounts of data and identifying patterns, trends, and correlations, AI technologies can assist in formulating policy frameworks that are beneficial for the public. However, it is the responsibility of political leaders and policymakers to establish AI policy objectives, legislation, and ethical principles. The issue at hand is more of a relationship between public leadership and power than a direct AI-human dynamic.

The incorporation of AI in various sectors of the economy, for instance, has the potential for significant economic effects, but it depends on whose interests are a priority during policy drafting. Political leaders, policymakers, and civil society have an important role in defining regulatory frameworks, ensuring equitable distribution of benefits, and mitigating potential negative impacts of AI-driven automation and job displacement.

To navigate the complex interplay between AI and political power,  we need responsible AI governance, effective regulations, and public awareness. Ethical considerations must be a priority in AI development to ensure transparency, fairness, and accountability. International collaboration and cooperation are crucial for establishing norms and standards that protect democratic values and prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few. The question arises, “In a hypothetical political system where the majority of policy decisions are automated by algorithmic structures, what exactly are citizens voting for? Are they electing a government or an algorithm?”

As we shape the future of artificial intelligence in politics, we must ensure that AI is used to improve decision-making, foster inclusive communities, and empower individuals rather than undermine democracy or consolidate power. As citizens and political leaders, it is our responsibility to engage in informed debates, establish comprehensive regulations, and proactively address the challenges and opportunities that AI presents.

Throughout this journey, it is crucial to remember that the ultimate power of AI lies not in the AI itself but in how we, as a society, choose to harness it. By embracing the potential of AI while staying true to our values and ideals, we can construct a future where technology serves the betterment of humanity.

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Muhammad Abdul Basit is a political scientist and columnist. He writes on international relations and sociopolitical issues.