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Article Article February 28th, 2017

How have governments changed with technological advances?

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History is replete with examples of new technologies transforming how government operates

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The telegraph and the internet are two inventions that left government hugely changed

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AI is a general-purpose technology which will change not just society but also government itself

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Most large corporations today are beginning to invest aggressively in artificial intelligence (AI), the applications of which range from self-driving cars to virtual personal assistants, but governments have yet to jump on the bandwagon. In the public sphere as well as in policy circles, there has been much talk about the impact of AI on society (for example, what the future of work will look like), but there has been very little effort devoted to understanding how AI could transform government itself.

History is, however, replete with examples of new technologies or methodologies having fundamentally affected how government operates. Advances in technology can not only enhance or streamline administrative tasks and service delivery, they can also change the role of government or entirelyreorganise its core functions.

The histories of a now redundant technology (the telegraph) and a current one (the internet) are good starting points to try and unpack how new technologies such as AI might change government.

Diplomatic cables

As archaic as it seems today, the telegraph was a radical invention at the time. Developed in the 19th century, it was the earliest form of telecommunication. The telegraph allowed people to transmit messages through encoded electrical signals as opposed to physical objects (for example, letters via messengers on horse or ship), drastically shortening the time taken to deliver messages and decoupling communication from transportation.

With the completion of a fully-functional transatlantic cable between the United States and England in 1866, this communication technology brought radical change - to diplomacy in particular. Prior to the telegraph, foreign emissaries had more power and freedom to conduct foreign relations, because directives from policymakers higher up could take weeks to come through. Between North America and Europe, the telegraph reduced communication times from 10 days to less than an hour. The delay in transmitting messages had been an effective way of stalling for time and pursuing a more methodical, cool-headed approach to diplomacy. Given the high-risk nature of foreign policy implementation (where worst-case scenarios mean all-out war), the telegraph ousted delay as a diplomacy tool.

The adoption of the telegraph was gradual and cautious. It involved learning to work within a new set of constraints, such as having to write more concisely to avoid incurring expenses based on the length of messages per transmission, or developing codes to throw spies off the scent. The telegraph also facilitated communication across large swathes of US territory, going hand-in-hand with the growth of the railroads and the consolidation of financial and commodity markets. The first nationwide industrial monopoly emerged in the telegraph industry, and became subject to state and federal government regulatory pressure. What eventually killed the telegraph industry was not regulation but the rise of a competing technology, the telephone.

'Machines of communism'

The ubiquity of the internet makes it hard to imagine or recall a world pre-dotcom. The internet's origins lie in the Cold War era when the Americans successfully developed ARPANET (the first patch-switching network) and supported its transfer from the military sector to the civilian economy. What is less well known is that the Russians also made a series of attempts to create a nationwide network analogous to what became the internet, none of which succeeded.

Commonly known by its Russian abbreviation, OGAS was an attempt to create a statewide automated information system for the management of the national economy. By the late 1950s, the Soviet central planning system was struggling, and attempts by Nikita Khrushchev to remedy this through a radical decentralisation of the national economy were backfiring. The simultaneous rise of electronic digital computers presented an opportunity to improve the country's economic management. Cybernetics (the science which is concerned with control and communication in man-made and biological systems) came to be seen as a crucial tool in the construction of the material and technical basis of communism.

Soviet cyberneticists believed that the combination of the correct mathematical model, an efficient algorithm and a powerful computer network would lead to economic reform. Based on a unified territorial network of information computation networks, OGAS was supposed to provide the means for automating a number of functions: planning, the collection of economic data, the distribution of resources, banking, and transportation control.

Along with other problems, the actual implementation of OGAS was fraught with political complications. OGAS threatened to upset the existing hierarchy of power, challenging the roles of agencies like the Central Statistical Administration and the State Planning Committee. Ultimately, instead of a national network - as was the original goal - what the Soviets ended up with was a patchwork of unconnected, ministry-subordinated databanks.

Looking ahead

Like the telegraph and the internet, AI is a general-purpose technology which will change not just society but also government itself. While the net benefit of the telegraph and the internet has probably been positive, the jury is still out on AI. While AI could empower government to achieve better outcomes for citizens, it could also turn the state into a dystopian panopticon.

Change right now is inevitable, and governments have a moral obligation to make the best use of AI. But, as the above examples demonstrate, it's hard to get this right. When adopting the telegraph, governments tended to underestimate the impact that decreasing communication times would have on their foreign relations. And the failure of the development of the internet in the Russian context suggests that technologies can fail badly if we try to superimpose them on systems that have pre-existing problems - without rethinking the underlying model.



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