Does technology threaten democracy?

From radio to the internet, technological innovations have left their mark on democracy. At the Munich Security Conference, politicians and tech leaders warned of the latest threats — and those yet to come.

The internet has helped transform how modern democracies work. A decade ago, voters wouldn't have expected their leaders to announce policy in a tweet or share decision-making insights in a podcast. But like anything capable of transforming society, the internet and its associated technologies carry risks.

At the Munich Security Conference, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan shared the stage on Friday with tech leaders from Facebook, Google and Microsoft to debate the risks that have emerged from their innovations.

Annan, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for helping create "a more peaceful world," pointed to the "social media revolution" in Egypt. In 2011, protesters organized mass pro-democracy demonstrations on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that eventually toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

"But for lack of leadership the revolution failed," Annan said. "The military came back and took charge. Now they are doing things that Mubarak couldn't even think of."

Science | 23.01.2017

Annan said social media could be used to fight repressive governments or help government repression

For Annan, the glaring risk to hopeful democracies is the ability for state authorities to manipulate access to social media to stifle or direct political debate.

"Authoritarian governments have decided to restrain the use of these tools, and some have not only blocked it, but used it to control their people," Annan said. "The question that is going to come up is: are these social instruments, are they instruments of emancipation or control?"

Read more: Researchers say Beijing brings out big guns to protect Great Firewall of China

'Create nihilism in the West'

Since Egypt's uprising, social media has become ubiquitous. The technology not only threatens repressive governments, but also Western democracies — a fact laid bare by alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Representatives from Microsoft, Google and Facebook were among the panelists discussing modern risks

"When we look at the activity we've uncovered around Russian information operations on Facebook, a majority of them predated even the primaries of the 2016 election and a lot of that content actually came after the election," said Alex Stamos, chief security officer at Facebook.

"The people who are trying to influence political speech are doing so in a much longer term than supporting one political party or supporting one candidate. They're trying to create nihilism in the West around our institutions."

But solving these issues isn't easy. For Microsoft President Brad Smith, governments and companies need to acknowledge that different mediums need individual solutions.

"I do think it is helpful to consider to some degree the differences between different types of technologies," said Smith. "If you were to apply to a search engine the same community standards that would apply to a social media community, you could effectively foreclose the ability for people around the world to find information on the internet."

Read more: Worried about fake news? Then it's time we talked about social bots

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

AI: 'Third revolution in warfare'

Over 100 AI experts have written to the UN asking them to ban lethal autonomous weapons — those that use AI to act independently without any human input. No "killer robots" currently exist, but advances in artificial intelligence have made them a real possibility. The experts said these weapons could be "the third revolution in warfare," after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Gunpowder

The "first revolution in warfare" was invented by the Chinese, who started using the black substance between the 10th and 12th centuries to propel projectiles in simple guns. It gradually spread to the Middle East and Europe in the following two centuries. Once perfected, firearms using gunpowder proved to be far more lethal than the traditional bow and arrow.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Artillery

The invention of gunpowder also introduced artillery pieces to the battlefield. Armies started using basic cannons in the 16th century to fire heavy metal balls at opposing infantrymen and breach defensive walls around cities and fortresses. Far more destructive field guns were invented in the 19th century and went on to wreak havoc in the battlefields of World War I.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Machine guns

Guns that fire multiple rounds in rapid succession were invented in the late 19th century and immediately transformed the battlefield. Machine guns, as they came to be known, allowed soldiers to mow down the enemy from a protected position. The weapon's grisly effectiveness became all too clear in WWI as both sides used machine guns to wipe out soldiers charging across no man's land.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Warplanes

Military thinkers did not ignore the invention of the first airplane in 1903. Six years later, the US military bought the first unarmed military aircraft, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer. Inventors experimented with more advanced fighter and bomber aircraft in the following years. Both became standard features in many of the national air forces established by the end of WWI.

German tanks and military transport during the German invasion of Poland during WWII

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Mechanization

Armies had traditionally used soldiers and horses to fight and transport military equipment. But around WWI, they started using more machines such as tanks and armored vehicles. Faster and more destructive armies were the result. Nazi Germany put this new form of "mechanized warfare" to destructive effect in WWII using an attack strategy known as "Blitzkrieg" ("lightning war").

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Missiles

Although artillery was effective, it had a relatively limited range. The missile's invention in WWII suddenly allowed an army to strike a target hundreds of kilometers away. The first missile — the German V-2 — was relatively primitive, but it laid the foundation for the development of guided cruise missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Jet engine

Jet aircraft first saw action alongside traditional propeller airplanes at the end of WWII. Jet engines dramatically increased an aircraft's speed, allowing it to reach a target quicker and making it far harder for an adversary to shoot it down. After WWII, military reconnaissance planes were developed that could fly higher than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and faster than the speed of sound.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Nuclear weapons

The "second revolution in warfare" announced its horrific arrival on August 6, 1945 when the US dropped the first nuclear bomb — "Little Boy" — on the city of Hiroshima in Japan, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people instantly. In the Cold War that followed, the US and Soviet Union developed thousands of even more destructive warheads and raised the specter of a devastating nuclear war.

Technologies that revolutionized warfare

Digitization

Recent decades have witnessed the ever more prevalent use of computers to conduct war. The devices made military communication quicker and easier and radically improved the precision and efficiency of many weapons. Armed forces have recently focused on developing cyber warfare capabilities to defend national infrastructure and attack foreign adversaries in cyberspace.

AI: The next challenge?

While technologies capable of undermining democracy or threatening government stability dominated the discussion, panelists also touched on how artificial intelligence posed one of the greatest technological challenges.

"I think it would be a mistake to think that we could build bias-free AI. That would be the easy, techno-utopian idea," said Stamos. "We understand that machine learning ends up reflecting the biases of the people that built it, but especially of the training data it is fed."

Stamos pointed to a study on software used to determine sentences and parole eligibility in the US. It found that Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, used by some US courts, was no more accurate than predictions made by people with little or no criminal justice expertise.

A 2016 report by ProPublica had accused the software of being biased against African Americans, with predictions for second offenses being "nearly twice as high as their white counterparts."

AI, which is set to affect all aspects of life, could pose similar problems in other areas.

But for Google advisor Eric Schmidt, AI's benefits outweigh the issues. "My industry is about to go through some enormous transitions because of the power of this technology," he said.

"These will lower prices, increase lifespans, improve healthcare, improve reach and so forth, and they are profound. It does come with issues — and so we have to minimize them. But please remember, there's an overwhelming benefit from being smarter in many of these areas."