AI-assisted civilian technology on the rise

According to a study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) published late last week, digital technologies will play an increasingly important role in European democracy over the next decade. This is perhaps not entirely surprising; after all, the pandemic has shifted much of our lives to the digital realm, why shouldn’t our political participation?

The report, based on interviews with more than 50 government and business representatives, finds that the market for online participation and deliberation in Europe is expected to grow to €300 million over the next five years, while the market for e-voting will grow up to 500 million euros. Respondents also state that there is a “window of opportunity” for European democracy technology providers to expand beyond Europe.

The report’s authors further believe that digital democracy technology can help reach otherwise hard-to-reach demographics, such as youth and immigrant communities. This also includes wider populations under difficult circumstances, such as those caused by the pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

“In the event of war, the tools for electronic democracy must be even stronger. Because we understand that we have to live for society and give tools to citizens,” says Oleg Polovynko, IT director at Kyiv Digital, Kyiv City Council, and one of the speakers at the Applied Sciences Conference 2023.

Not without controversy

Digital democracy refers to the use of digital technologies and platforms to strengthen democratic processes and increase citizens’ participation in government decision-making. This is also referred to as civic tech (not to be confused with govtech, which focuses on technologies that help governments perform their tasks more efficiently).

Examples of tools include online petitions, open data portals and participatory budgeting systems, where citizens come together to discuss community needs and priorities and then allocate public resources accordingly.

At best, it has the potential to reinvigorate democracy by empowering citizens to participate anywhere, anytime. At worst, it can be used for disinformation or just plain old-fashioned online toxic behavior.

Moreover, the discussion about a possible ‘digital divide’ – who will benefit and who will be excluded because of access or lack of technology – is not an easy one to settle.

Invite AI to collective decision-making

IDEA states that there are more than 100 vendors in the online participation, deliberation and voting sector in Europe, most of which operate at a national level. Most of the internationally operating companies are start-ups with between 10 and 60 employees, but are growing rapidly.

Many of these democratic technology platforms have already begun to take advantage of recent incremental advancements in artificial intelligence to introduce new features or improve existing ones.

“We envision a future where citizens and AI collaborate with governments to address complex social problems by combining collective intelligence with artificial intelligence.” Robert Bjarnason, co-founder and chairman of Citizens.is tells TNW.

We advocate a model in which citizens collaborate with powerful AI systems to help shape policy, rather than allowing centralized government AI models to exert excessive influence.

After the collapse of Icelandic banks in 2008, mistrust of politicians was at an all-time high in the Nordic island nation. Together with a fellow programmer, Gunnar Grímsson, Bjarnasson created a software platform called Your Priorities that allows citizens to propose laws and policies that can then be voted up or down by other users.

Just before the 2010 local elections, the open-source software was used to set up the Better Reykjavik portal. Five years later, a poll on the site managed to name a street in the Icelandic capital after Darth Vader (well, his Icelandic nickname Svarthöfði, or Black-cape, which has been around since fit well with the names of the streets in the area).

Of course, there have been many “heavier” decisions that have been influenced by the platform, such as crowdsourcing ideas on how to prioritize the city’s educational objectives.

To date, more than 70,000 residents of the capital have interacted with Better Reykjavik. Pretty impressive for a population of 120,000. In addition, Your Priorities has been piloted in Malta, Norway, Scotland and Estonia.

The Baltic tech-advanced nation has passed several laws proposed through the platform, featuring a unique debate system, content crowdsourcing and prioritization, a “toxicity sensor” to alert administrators to potentially abusive content — and extensive use of AI. Citizens.is recently partnered with OpenAI and implemented GPT-4 for its AI assistant – in Icelandic.

Don’t worry if the language barrier felt a bit steep. Citizens.is has kindly provided TNW with a screenshot of the company’s AI assistant in action from a project in Oakland, California.

Screenshot of OpenAI chatbot conversation