Some years ago, I was in the room when a consulting firm was pitching a mega-project to the president of research and development at a major multinational company. They would construct a huge IT system that would allow him to manage personally every project in his sprawling organisation. He would be able to dive into every project and make every decision.
His eyes lit up in fevered anticipation. The project never took off – much to his disappointment.
It seems that the failed Soviet experiment taught us many things, but we have failed to take on the most important lesson – central planning of complex adaptive systems doesn’t work. Yet the tendency of people in power to believe in their omniscience is irresistible. Failure, they believe, comes from poor decisions made by lesser beings. If they or people as bright and capable as them (very few) could only make every decision, utopia would be inevitable.
Governments everywhere fall prey this delusion. The UK has become ever more centralised. Even within government, decision-making have progressively become sucked into Number 10 and the Treasury with individual departments ever more emasculated.
Mrs May’s election campaign was the most explicit manifestation of this that we have seen in recent times. Elect ME. I will run the country perfectly because I am strong and stable. I will negotiate the dream deal with the EU. I will do everything.
The voting public is, thankfully, much wiser. May was stripped of her majority and given a lesson – one she has not yet absorbed.
There is now a new siren song to feed the omnipotent, omniscient ego. It’s called artificial intelligence and machine learning. The rumblings have started. Powerful machines programmed with learning algorithms will make better decisions than any human being. Let us build them for you and you can control the world.
There is an alternative vision as to what AI can offer. A mode of empowering individuals and small groups by enabling at a smaller scale that which could previously only be done by large organisations.
It remains to be seen which vision will prevail.