The probability that democracy works

We are told that a large number of people opting for a certain choice(ex. a candidate in an election) represents near-certainty that this choice meets necessary and sufficient criteria. No particular person needs to understand how a country works if a lot of people who understand different functions of a country cast a vote on the matter…the aggregate decision represents the closest thing to a complete picture. 

Let’s make the following assumptions:
1. The ideal candidate must satisfy  n equally important criteria and we assume that this candidate is present among the existing candidates. 

2. There are  N voters where  N \gg n and each voter has partial knowledge of the  n necessary criteria. In particular, we assume that each voter is aware of at least one criterion and their knowledge of these criteria is given by a uniform distribution.

From the above assumptions it follows that the probability that the correct candidate is chosen is approximately 1-\sum_{k=1}^{n-1} {n \choose k} (\frac{k}{n})^N .  In theory this is good. However, there are some problems with our theory. 

The first problem is that ‘choice’ of criteria is highly correlated within social groups. Second, the definition of equally-important criteria is problematic. Some criteria like the role of government in tech innovation are more complex than others which means that knowledge of criteria is probably given by a gamma distribution rather than a uniform distribution. Finally, the appropriate candidate might not exist among the set of available candidates.

Now, I think the only way for society to move closer to a system where voting works is to change the current education system. Using uniform grading requirements, students are taught to attain knowledge by consensus which merely encourages groupthink. The necessary alternative is to encourage inquiry-driven learning.

This could come in the form of open-ended competitions, like the Harvard Soft Robotics competition that I’m participating in, or working on projects within Fab Labs/Hacker Spaces. In any case, society will have to shift from skill-based employment to innovation-driven employment due to the growing number of tasks that can be automated. People will be paid for their imagination rather than their time and I believe that in 15 years time sheets will all but disappear. 

If we want a democracy that works and not merely the theatrical nonsense that passes for democracy today, radical changes to the education system will be required at all levels. 

Note 1: The probability calculation can be much more complicated depending upon your assumptions.

Note 2: For the reader that’s interested in my opinion on Hacker Spaces, you may read more here

Where education failed

Today there’s more innovation in educating computers than educating High school students in Europe and the USA. Some have even gone as far as warning that the recent progress in machine learning might lead to smarter-than-human computers in the near future[1].

First, I’d like to make it clear that the AI fears are unfounded. The state of the art in machine learning includes software that can learn patterns from large amounts of data however there are no machine learning systems that are good at deducing non-trivial patterns from small amounts of data. More importantly, the state of the art in machine learning software is terrible at learning new concepts. We might have robot truck drivers on the horizon but there won’t be any creative robot scientists or entrepreneurs anytime soon.

While there’s no real AI risk to humans there’s a really serious problem with the lack of innovation in High school education. In fact, the growing risk of severe long-term unemployment in these regions isn’t due to the arrival of super-human robots which won’t happen anytime soon, it’s due to a complacent education system that hasn’t taken into account significant changes in the modern job market.

Here’s what the actual job market looks like:
1) It is global which means that locals aren’t guaranteed a job in their own country as their forebears were.
2) Any uncreative task that can be automated will be automated.
3) Due to the previous points organizations are much more fluid and the notion of a job for life has all but disappeared.

Many business people anticipated these important changes but somehow High school education hasn’t changed accordingly. In fact, there is little sign of any effort to make the necessary changes. While there is serious discussion today about how we must increase social safety nets, some even going as far as arguing for universal basic income, the best that can be done to safeguard the future is to make significant changes to the current secondary education system.

Right now High School in the USA and Europe is exam-focused and strives to produce obedient children that stick to the curriculum. Moreover, this system breeds a zero-sum mindset where students compete for the best grades and then compete for the ‘best’ internships at big companies. However, all the points I mentioned indicate that we need to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset from an early age. In the modern world, job security is almost nonexistent so the education system should encourage people to build things from a young age.

This is a cultural problem in the same way that the absence of women in mathematics is a cultural problem. Women aren’t naturally bad at mathematics anymore than humans are destined for uncreative jobs in a big company. For these reasons, I believe we can do something about this. 

Here are the changes I would recommend:
1) Students will be assessed using bi-weekly examinations instead of massive exams at the end of the year.
2) At the end of each semester all students will participate in hackathons for fun, fame and credit. These will focus around software, engineering or robotics that can result in products of commercial value.
3) I expect companies of all kinds to participate in the process of changing the education system.

These recommendations don’t have to be followed literally but important changes must be made. At present the closest thing that resembles the school I imagine is Xavier Niel’s Ecole 42 which forms software engineers and digital entrepreneurs by encouraging them to work on interesting software projects of gradually increasing levels of difficulty.

Some might complain that these changes might be expensive but I’d like to argue that large-scale unemployment will be even more expensive and this is actually a good investment. In fact, the belief that people below a certain age can only be net-consumers is an outdated idea. The creative potential of adolescents has so far been underestimated in terms of its ability to contribute to human progress and economic growth.

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that there are no robots taking away the creative opportunities that we are capable of creating for ourselves. However, the future won’t build itself on its own.

[1] There’s a long list of intellectuals for this one: Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking among others. It really stuns me how much discussion about the potential of robotics and AI is dominated by unreasonable fear-mongering.