Fiction Science Club

How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.

“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”

He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.

One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”

Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.

Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.

“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”

Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.

I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”

Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.

“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website,

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.


BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


How BlackSky uses AI to analyze satellite views

Color-coded satellite view
A color-coded satellite map of an area in northern Virginia shows that parking lots around Dulles Town Center are relatively open, as noted by the oval-shaped patchwork of green blocks just above the center of the image. But other parking lots, noted in shades of orange and red, are relatively busy. Such geospatial information can serve as a measure of economic activity and traffic congestion. (BlackSky Image)

How do you know when a region’s economy has recovered from the coronavirus pandemic? You could wait for the verdict from the unemployment figures, gather reports from individual businesses and scan news reports about business reopeniings. You could count how many cars show up in the parking lots of factories and shopping centers. Or you could just let Spectra do all of that.

Seattle-based BlackSky’s Spectra geospatial data platform can combine satellite imagery and other data inputs to generate insights that are greater than the sum of their parts. It’ll even use AI-enabled image recognition to count the cars.

As the COVID-19 crisis progresses, Spectra is learning how to recognize the early signs of recovery, or the telltale signs of a rebound.

“That’s what BlackSky is really all about: How can we inform you that something is happening, or something is going to happen, before you hear it from anywhere else?” said Patrick O’Neil, director of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Boeing rolls out first ‘Loyal Wingman’ AI drone

A Boeing-led team has presented the Royal Australian Air Force with its first “Loyal Wingman” aircraft, an AI-equipped drone that’s designed to fly in coordination with crewed military airplanes.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


Software tools for COVID-19 research go viral

COVID-19 study connections
This graph charts the connections that link dozens of research studies about coronavirus and related subjects. (

One month after the debut of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, the database of coronavirus-related research papers has doubled in size – and has given rise to more than a dozen software tools to channel the hundreds of studies that are being published every day about the pandemic.

In a roundup published on the ArXiv preprint server this week, researchers from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft Research and other partners in the project say CORD-19’s collection has risen from about 28,000 papers to more than 52,000. Every day, several hundred more papers are being published, in peer-reviewed journals and on preprint servers such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv.

CORD-19 aims to make sense of them all, using the Semantic Scholar academic search engine developed by the Allen Institute for AI, also known as AI2.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


White House enlists AI for war on coronavirus

CORD-19 logo
The logo for the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, is a stylized coronavirus. (CORD-19 Graphic)

A consortium of tech leaders — including Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s charity — today unveiled an AI-enabled database that’s meant to give researchers quicker, surer access to resources relating to coronavirus and how to stop it.

The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, was created in response to a request from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It takes advantage of AI tools to organize more than 24,000 articles about the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes it.

“We think that AI has an important part to play in solving this problem,” said Doug Raymond, general manager for the Semantic Scholar academic search engine at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2.

AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, said his team leapt at the opportunity to participate in CORD-19. “We hesitated all of negative-two seconds,” he joked.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Advisers ask for virus research to be open for AI

CDC Emergency Operations Center
Staff members at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support the COVID-19 response in the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center. (CDC Photo)

Science advisers for the White House and 11 other national governments are asking publishers around the world to provide free and open access to all research relating to coronaviruses.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


White House’s top techie touts AI trends

Michael Kratsios
White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios speaks at last year’s Web Summit in Portugal. (Web Summit via YouTube)

One year after the White House kicked off the American AI Initiative, its effects on research and development in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence are just beginning to sink in.

And Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, says those effects are sure to be felt in Seattle — where industry leaders including Amazon and Microsoft, and leading research institutions including the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, are expanding the AI frontier.

This month, funding for AI emerged as one of the bright spots in a budget proposal that would reduce R&D spending on other fronts. Kratsios said the White House conducted a “cross-cut” analysis of non-defense spending on AI research, and found that it amounted to nearly $1 billion.

“We made the big step of announcing, a couple of weeks ago, a doubling of AI R&D over two years,” he told me this week in an interview marking the anniversary of the American AI Initiative.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz sees AI-human synergy

Eric Horvitz
Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, discusses trends in artificial intelligence during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a rising competitor for human intelligence, in settings ranging from human-vs.-machine card games to the “Terminator” movie series. But according to Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, the hottest trends in AI have more to do with creating synergies between the humans and the machines.

Mastering human-AI collaboration is something “we don’t hear enough about in the open press,” Horvitz said Feb. 15 during a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

He ticked off several examples where humans and AI agents can create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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Bill Gates touts AI and gene editing for global health

Margaret Hamburg and Bill Gates
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates makes a point during a Q&A with Margaret Hamburg, board chair for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been working to improve the state of global health through his nonprofit foundation for 20 years, and today he told the nation’s premier scientific gathering that advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing could accelerate those improvements exponentially in the years ahead.

“We have an opportunity with the advance of tools like artificial intelligence and gene-based editing technologies to build this new generation of health solutions so that they are available to everyone on the planet. And I’m very excited about this,” Gates said in Seattle during a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Such tools promise to have a dramatic impact on several of the biggest challenges on the agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the tech guru and his wife in 2000.

Get the full story on GeekWire.