Computers may take the place of parliament

We’re entering a world where voters’ wishes will be so well understood that arguments for direct democracy will grow.

If this column were a book it might be called: My Dad, the Theory of Measurement and the End of Representative Democracy. When my mum died and we cleared out their house, I took home some of my father’s papers as mementos of his working life. Some stuff about transducers and his book The Mathematical Modelling of Metabolic and Endocrine Systems, which isn’t exactly a page-turner, unless you turn the pages without reading them.

Dad, Professor Ludwik Finkelstein to give him his proper title, was a professor of measurement. And I confess I was never absolutely certain what that meant. A few weeks ago, however, City, University of London, informed me that on the institution’s 125th anniversary it was declaring my father an icon of the university for his scientific contribution, and asked if I would be able to attend the ceremony. Yes, of course. But I thought before I did so it would be a good idea to get a grip on the whole thing.

I learnt quite a bit about scientific instruments that I will save to entertain everyone at the next family party. But here, in a nutshell, is what might matter to you. And what matters to understanding politics and its future.

My father helped develop a consistent understanding of measurement. It is a language, he argued, that you use to describe things. It allows you to appreciate their basic properties, to compare them and to rank them. The purpose of pinning down the meaning of a “proper” measurement was that with this descriptive language you can understand better what look like fuzzy bits of human behaviour. You can see that they are predictable and consistent systems. You can model them and therefore you can computerise them too. Dad’s work was the bedrock of computerisation.

Now I see why, despite being an engineer and devoted to the discipline, Dad was always very encouraging of my interest in politics and economics. He saw they were every bit as much a system as the instruments he installed in coalmines at the start of his career. And as I look both backwards in my political life and forwards to the future of politics, I can see that he was right.

When I first went to work for the Conservative Party in 1995 I realised something quite early on. We were amateurs fighting professionals. Tony Blair’s Labour Party was studying voters systematically, using qualitative and quantitative polling. We were relying on instinct. So when a controversy arose, they knew what voters would think while we were guessing.

Although I say they knew, in fact what they were doing was rudimentary. Some focus group polling, some survey work. Soon the techniques available became much more sophisticated. By the 2015 election, parties were able to target individuals based on demographics, shopping habits and so forth. They were able to describe voters using numbers in exactly the way my father would have recognised, ranking them, ordering them, predicting their behaviour.

Then, of course, there was the controversial work during the Brexit referendum (and in the US, with Trump) to influence opinion based on data mining by companies such as Cambridge Analytica.

Yet this is just the start. This process of ordering and systemising will get deeper as we are able to store more data and process it more quickly. Increasingly we are able not just to ask people what they think but to predict what they will think. As Jamie Susskind noted in his thought-provoking book Future Politics, Facebook’s algorithm needs only ten likes before it can predict your opinions better than your colleagues, 150 to beat family members, 300 to defeat your spouse. Computers will be able to predict what you think better than you can yourself.

Even with this, we will still just be getting going. We will be at the computer-assisted parking stage of development, but we may go all the way to the driverless car stage. Eventually you will be able to produce a speech that is perfectly engineered to achieve a certain reaction. You will be able to take policy positions perfectly designed to produce coalitions of support of a given size. You will be able to select candidates perfectly engineered to win elections. You will know exactly how any argument will play.

Once you know this sort of thing, indeed once you are able to know it, you won’t be able to carry on as before. If you do, you will be beaten by someone who lets the technology assist them.

During the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote, the advocates of AV persisted with an argument — AV would help deal with expenses fraud — that focus groups said wouldn’t work. Presumably they thought it was still compelling, but guess what? Voters didn’t. Which was knowable. To press on with a position when you are certain it’s a loser is unprofessional, and also unyielding.

There is no point objecting that you wouldn’t want all this to happen. That you will want authenticity rather than something so calculated. Because the whole point is that whatever is calculated will, by definition, be what you want. It will always be more appealing to you than the alternative because it will be based on measurements of what you think, what you want and who you are.

And, as with the Cambridge Analytica work, the line between what you really think and what, with computer assistance, you can be persuaded to think will be blurred.

This will be the position every parliamentary representative will find themselves in. It’s one thing to take a stand against public opinion in the hope it will work out. It’s quite another when technology allows you to appreciate that it absolutely won’t work out. Representatives who don’t follow predictable, knowable opinion will be replaced by those who do.

At the same time, the demand for direct democracy may increase. After all, the objection that we can’t deal with complicated questions because we can’t all gather in the same room has already gone. And if technology can measure our opinion and predict our position, it can allow us to make decisions on legislation that reflect our point of view even on issues we don’t properly understand. A computer may know our view on the Domestic Energy Efficiency Plan Bill even when we don’t.

One day, it could even make these decisions without our intervention: driverless cars, voteless democracies.

It seems quite a scary outcome. But I am shored up by what I acknowledge is a statement of faith more than anything else. My Dad always believed that nothing really bad could come from scientific insight and systematic knowledge. That bit of his work I did understand. And I think he was right.