Why AI is a threat to democracy—and what we can do to stop it

Amy Webb, futurist, NYU professor, and award-winning author, has spent much of the last decade researching, discussing, and meeting with people and organizations about artificial intelligence. “We’ve reached a fever pitch in all things AI,” she says. Now it’s time to step back to see where it’s going.

This is the task of her new book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, where she takes a bird’s-eye view of trends that, she warns, have put the development of technology on a dangerous path. In the US, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple (the “G-MAFIA”) are hamstrung by the relentless short-term demands of a capitalistic market, making long-term, thoughtful planning for AI impossible. In China, Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu are consolidating and mining massive amounts of data to fuel the government’s authoritarian ambitions.

If we don’t change this trajectory, argues Webb, we could be headed straight for catastrophe. But there is still time to act, and a role for everyone to play. MIT Technology Review sat down with her to speak about why she’s worried and what she thinks we can do about it.

The following QA has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You mention that we’re currently seeing a convergence of worrying technological, political, and economic trends. Can you expand on what the technological trends are?

When you talk to a researcher working in the field, they will tell you that it’s going to be a very long time before we see a lot of the promises that have been made about AI: things like full automation in vehicles, absolute recognition, or artificial general intelligence—AGI—systems that are capable of cognition and more human-like thought.