Technology and power transform in tandem. The impact of the printing press on protestant politics or that of Cambridge Analytica on recent U.S. election outcomes suggests as much. Our proposed topic of 'AI, the Social Contract and Democracy' cuts to the heart of this phenomenon, while firmly anchoring it the analytical paradigm of democracy. As the transformational potential of AI is well understood in society at large, the technology sector nonetheless experiences that it rubs up against rules made in a different epoch. This is, however, not another version of regulation lagging behind innovation. Current debate frames are simply too limited to capture the complexity of our historical predicament, and underexpose in particular, the step between individual human rights, as the right to privacy, and the development and uses of technology. This intermediate step is the constituted form of collective rule that is presupposed by both technology stakeholders and the individual eager to safeguard her rights. The collective rule we have in mind is a particular one: that of democracy as an ongoing reflection and reformulation of the social contract. With technology, the image of the human and that of society changes, and that makes all the difference to our analytical work, which no longer can be pursued in disciplinary silos adapted to the pre-cybernetic age. Empirically, this manifests itself in the radical reconstitution of the public deliberative space, where reasoning, lobbying, marketing and manipulation amalgamate in a way that cannot be understood in isolation from the technology enabling, shaping and leveraging it.
By inviting inquiry into the social contract and democracy in the light of epochal changes brought about by AI, we prioritize research on the very point where AI, the human condition and the good society intersect. The question is how the ‘rule of the people by the people’ is ensured in a setting where neither 'rule', 'the people' or ‘the responsible human’ remain as stable points outside the transformative power of AI.
We feel safe when stating that our topic is novel and its framing is original. While we see an increased interest in the impact of AI on democracy, the rule of law and the social contract in the social sciences and the humanities, it often lacks a granular understanding of what exactly AI and digitalization do to the question of the human and the social. The inverse is true for attempts to approach these questions from the side of an ethically informed technology. Often, these accounts are perceived as overly rudimentary by a readership well versed in debates on Science and Technology Studies or New Materialities, and tend to reproduce behavioralist reductions in certain forms of AI. There are signs that this is starting to change in the past three years, as anyone searching relevant keywords in research databases will acknowledge. However, serious work in on this theme is still rare. Our proposed topic would ensure that Swedish research would connect early to these early efforts to develop what we would describe as a new paradigm.