What does Artificial Intelligence Mean for the Future of Democratic Society? Examining the societal impact of AI and whether human rights can respond

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary University of London
Department Name: Sch of Law


This research examines the impacts that States' use of artificial intelligence (AI) in decision making processes has on how individuals and societies evolve and develop and what this means for democratic society. Understanding these impacts is essential so that effective guidance can be developed that allows States to take advantage of the significant potential inherent in AI, while protecting those factors essential to a functioning democracy and preventing human rights harm.
AI has the power to radically transform State activity, redefining our understanding of how a State functions and delivers services, and how it interacts with its citizens. A key development in this regard is the incorporation of AI tools into State decision-making processes. To be effective, these tools are dependent upon significantly increased surveillance by State and non-State actors: the data obtained through surveillance is subject to analysis using AI in order to make individually-tailored decisions. This represents a step-change in terms of the level of insight the State has into individuals' day-to-day lives, and their ability to use this information to determine that individual's life choices. This may exert a profound impact on how individuals, and society as a whole, develops. Will individuals be afraid to experiment, or to seek out alternative ideas or ways of life, because they are worried that they will be categorised on this basis and their future life choices restricted? Will this in turn lead to the stagnation of democratic society?
AI has enormous potential. It can be used to transform how a State delivers services, and if used appropriately can make a real contribution to the development of society, and the protection of human rights. However, it is imperative that the broader impacts of AI on individuals and society be understood before AI becomes pervasive in decision-making processes, so that appropriate regulatory and policy responses can be developed, and human rights protections ensures.
This research focuses on the inadvertent, or unintentional, impacts associated with State adoption of AI technologies. There is, of course, clear potential for AI to be misused for repressive purposes. Of interest here, however, is States' use of AI when deployed in pursuit of legitimate objectives. The unintended consequences associated with States' uses of AI under these circumstances may be less visible but equally dramatic.
Human rights law provides the framework underpinning research. Although it must be reconceptualised to respond to the digital age (a key research objective) it provides the most effective means of identifying harm, resolving competing interests, and providing regulatory guidance.
The principal objective underpinning this inter-disciplinary research is the development of future-oriented human rights approaches to regulate States' use of AI in decision making processes, and to ensure that AI serves, rather than undermines, societal objectives. To do so will require in-depth research across law, human rights, philosophy, and sociology. Initial research will investigate factors essential to individual and societal development, how these relate to democratic functioning, and how they are impacted by States' use of AI. Human rights law itself must then be re-conceptualised, to ensure that it is capable of engaging with these factors, and protecting them in the digital age.
State agencies are beginning to incorporate AI technologies, and the utilisation of AI will increase exponentially over the coming years. Surveillance and AI-assisted analytical tools are deployed across all areas of State activity, from social welfare, to child protection, and healthcare. To examine the democratic effects where they are most visible in the short term, however, research will focus primarily on State activity related to law enforcement and counter-terrorism, examining the use of AI by police and intelligence agencies.

Planned Impact

The principal objective underpinning this research project is the production of world class research to inform human rights compliant policy and regulation with respect to the development and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) tools by States. State agencies are just beginning to incorporate AI technologies, and it is expected that the utilisation of AI by public authorities will increase exponentially over the coming years. Indeed, AI has been put at the centre of the UK government's development and investment plans (see establishment of Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, or Digital Catapult), reflecting global trends in this direction.
To-date, however, research has not addressed the effects that the use of AI in State decision-making processes has on how individuals and societies develop and evolve, and how this may affect the effective functioning of democratic society. This gap is significant as understanding these impacts is essential in order to identify if, and how, AI technologies may be appropriately deployed in decision-making contexts. This research intends to contribute directly to the development of policy guidance and regulation in this area.
Three principal pathways to impact will be pursued, addressing the United Nations, domestic State actors, and general awareness raising. As this is an emerging area of research, it is important that research findings are engaged with and adopted by standard setting bodies, or those with particular influence in the area, so that the frameworks developed during the research project can be taken up and receive authoritative endorsement.
United Nations
UN actors play a decisive role in developing human rights law, and the United Nations is arguably the most influential forum internationally in terms of informing international and domestic human rights approaches. This impact pathway is a means to ensure that research outputs inform mainstream human rights approaches. Engagement serves two purposes. It provides an opportunity to (a) influence thinking and policy development at a global level, and (b) contribute to the development of soft-law standards, capable of influencing domestic policy, legislation, and court decisions.
The applicant has pre-existing contacts with relevant actors, and a number of strategies for engagement will be employed. First, consultations will be held with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant Special Procedures to discuss the research agenda, and to identify areas of mutual interest. Second, broad consultations will be held with all actors to identify areas of interest that would benefit from in-depth discussion. Workshops will then be organised in these areas, with outputs tailored to participants needs. Third, submissions will be made to various bodies, in response to calls in order to contribute directly to standard setting.
Domestic State actors
State agencies operating at the domestic level play a clear role in both the development and operationalisation of policy. The flexibility built into this funding scheme offers an opportunity to engage with these actors, and to tailor research to their specific needs thereby informing their practice and securing impact. This project provides a clear added value to State actors' work. It allows for academically rigorous research, provided by an independent third party, without placing additional strain on the actor's resources.
General Awareness Raising
The focus here is on distilling research findings into accessible public facing outputs across a variety of different formats. Using existing contacts, leading non-governmental organisations active in this area will be engaged. Similar to the first two pathways, efforts will be made to ensure that research can be tailored to these actors' needs, in order to inform their work. Outputs will also be posted regularly to the project website in a variety of non-academic forms tailored for different actors.


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