Citizen Assemblies: a TEDx talk

Do you trust your politicians? The people who represent you, and take decisions on your behalf about vital things, like health, education, national defence, and importantly where your taxes are spent Research data show that trust in politicians is at an all-time low across most liberal democracies. In fact, only 1 in 5 citizens trusts their politicians.

But why is that so? Well, first of all, let me say that the 4 out of 5 who do not trust politicians (and I count myself in that group) are right. There is a strong misalignment of goals between us citizens and our representatives, something that is often called the “principal-agent” problem.

In politics we are the principals and our representatives are our agents. They are supposed to do their best to maximize our well-being. But agents have their own priorities: the most important of which is to get re-elected. This means that they must often fall in line with powerful interest groups that influence the outcome of elections. Oftentimes agents, our politicians, must decide which one of their many constituencies to serve first. Various constituencies may have conflicting interests. Take for example what happened during and after the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. Politicians in Europe and the US prioritized saving the constituency of bankers banks at the expense of the constituency of taxpayers, a decision that in many ways set off the wave of populism we witness today.

So is there something we can do to solve the principal-agent problem in politics, and reclaim trust in democratic institutions? Could we the citizens – the principals – have more of a direct say into policy decisions? Referenda is certainly one way to do so, but they suffer from two very serious problems.

The first one is the asymmetry of knowledge. Not everyone is equally knowledgeable about everything. That’s why we have experts. We need to listen and trust their advice. In an ideal democracy citizens have access to knowledge they can trust, from where they can inform their opinions. But we all know that this is not really happening. Very often the necessary knowledge to understand the complexity of a problem is quite difficult to acquire. And, equally important, can you trust the source? The phenomenon of AI algorithms peddling “fake news” in social media makes this problem ever more acute. In fact it is nowadays so acute that many citizens do not trust the experts. There are people, for example, who contrary to all scientific evidence believe that inoculation causes autism, that the planet is not really warming up, and in extreme cases that the earth is flat and astronauts never landed on the moon.

The second problem is time. Getting involved in politics takes time. Time that needs to be taken out of the little time we have to spend with our loved ones or do the things we enjoy, or indeed do work and earn a living. Learning all you need to learn about climate change, or inoculations, or genetics, or AI, in order to have an informed opinion takes a lot of time. Given the lack of time to participate we will generally opt to form opinions based on the most digestible information available out there, which may not be right. Not having time to participate in politics was the reason we delegated the responsibility of government to our agents, the professional class of politicians.

So lack of time and the asymmetry of knowledge make citizen participation problematic. So we are stuck. Our agents, our representatives, the politicians, will always serve the interests of themselves, their powerful friends and their families above our own. If we do not like them, the best we can do is vote them out every four years. But four years in an interconnected world of accelerated change can be a very long time.

No wonder so many citizens are trusting democracy less and less.

But what if we re-imagined democratic politics by solving those two problems, the knowledge asymmetry and lack of time? There is indeed a way to do so, and it is called a Citizen Assembly.

Here’s how it works. You select a group of citizens by lot, by sortition. This group should be diverse enough to reflect the demographics of the wider social group. Then you bring those people together, and you give them the opportunity to learn, debate and query facts on whatever is that you want the Citizen Assembly to opine on. And you compensate them for their time.

I was personally involved in a CItizen Assembly made up of 140 citizens from 9 different European countries, who came together to discuss how should Europe fund research in neurotechnologies. The first reaction from those citizens, when they were told what was required of them, was one of suspicion and disbelief. No one had asked them ever before about anything. Why now? And why neurotechnologies, a subject they knew absolutely nothing about. Was the European Commission conspiring with big pharma?

But soon they realized the importance of their role. As citizens and consumers they represented the most important stakeholder in the future of neurotechnologies, and the Citizen Assembly offered the way to have their voices heard. A deliberation process ensued where citizens were given the opportunity to learn about the subject, and thus solve the knowledge asymmetry problem. Their time was compensated. And a year later they presented to the European Parliament a set of wide-ranging, common sense, policy proposals on how neurotechnolgoy research should be funded, and how the outcome of the research would go back to benefit society at large.

Citizen Assemblies have been used, with great success, to address and resolve very complex and highly divisive political issues. In 2016, 99 Irish citizens were randomly selected to form a Citizen Assembly, and debate issues such as abortion. Their deliberations were broadcasted on national television and viewed by thousands of citizens. In 2018, the Irish people voted in a historical referendum in favour of abortions by a resounding majority, resolving a political deadlock that had plagued Irish politics of years. The Citizen Assembly had contributed to the depolarization of the Irish society and the forging of a broader consensus. Examples such as these, have demonstrated that citizens can reach common sense decisions when given the opportunity to learn and deliberate. Indeed, citizen assemblies are capable of breaking political impasse where national parliaments were not. Parliaments are easily polarized by dividing along ideological lines. Citizen Assemblies do not suffer from such ideologically-driven polarization.

So why should we consider Citizen Assemblies as a way to enhance democracy? Because we need to reinvent democracy in order to preserve it. In a future where AI, robots and automation will impact jobs and increase wealth and income inequalities, democracy will suffer, and even disappear. The signs are already staring us in the face. It is so easy to imagine a dystopia of millions of jobless people falling prey to the false promises of a charismatic autocrat. It has happened before and it can happen again. If we are passionate about saving our democratic freedoms and liberties we need to reinvent democracy by increasing direct citizen participation into political decision-making. Citizen Assemblies provide an excellent way to do so.


Work, Love, Polis: a talk at the National Library of Norway

On December 5, 2018 I was honoured with an invitation to open the “Fantastic Futures AI Conference” organized by the National Library of Norway, in Oslo. I put together my talk like a triptych of words; “Work”, “Love” and “Polis”. For each of the words I used a story to explore what the words mean – or might mean – in a world of intelligent machines. The text below is the transcript of my talk:


In my first story a wise and omnipotent Creator decides to fashion two creatures in His Own Image, a male and a female. I guess you know their names…

Adam & Eve

He places them inside a beautiful garden where everything is plentiful, so the two happy creatures have nothing to worry about. They can spend their days doing little else but enjoy themselves, bask in the eternal sunshine. It’s a world of material abundance and endless leisure. Sounds like a Paradise – right? Anyway, something happens, the female gets somewhat curious about something that was out of bounds – the Creator gets really pissed off about that, and that’s the end of the short holiday we humans enjoyed in the Garden of Delights.

As our great-great grandparents get kicked out a heavenly, thundering voice delivers, by way of punishment, some fateful words: In the sweat of thy face thou eat bread!  In other words: If you want to eat – go get a job!

Some say that this biblical story encodes a deep trauma in human evolution. The pain and anguish of transforming from a free hunting and gathering species into a hard-toiling, face-sweating, farming species, subject to laws made by kings. That the story marks beginning of the agricultural revolution. The story also marks the genesis of economics: the beginning of scarcity. It’s all about work from now on, and money, and power. And war too – for isn’t war the result of scarcity?

The story of Adam and Eve led many Christian faithful to uphold work as a way of redemption. But even the unbelievers among us share a deep-rooted belief in the intrinsic value of work. Work makes the man, or the woman. Work qualifies us as valuable members of society. The jobless, the lazy, the indolent, are a burden to hard-working, family-raising taxpayers. But you can also read this story in another way. That work is unnatural.

Indeed, one would argue that once we managed to overcome our ignorance and superstition, and embraced science and technology, our prime goal has been to improve our lives. To sweat less. To live longer, but not in order to work more but to enjoy more. To return to that pre-farming state of existence where we do not need to worry about tomorrow, when we lived in the warm embrace of natural bliss.


We are the creators now and in come the robots, our creations, machines in our own image, imitating our arms and hands, building other machines for us, taking over the toil, and the need for us to carry out such heavy work. As the robots become more dexterous, and more intelligent – they start looking more and more like us. By way of extrapolation, one day soon, they may become capable of doing all the work for us. Shouldn’t we therefore welcome this? The end of work? The end of sweat? Unfortunately.. getting rid of work is complicated.

To illustrate the complication, I would like to tell you another apocryphal story that brings together two titans of the car industry, the industrialist Henry Ford II and the leader of the American Automobile Workers Union Walter Reuther. It is set the late 1950s. Ford is taking Reuther on a tour of a newly built highly automated factory, showing him the robots.

Walter – Ford says – how are you going to get those robots to pay for your union dues?

And Walter Reuther responds: Henry, how are you going to get those robots to buy your cars?

And that’s the Automation Paradox in a nutshell: if the robots do all the work, how will the workers – who will be jobless – earn money to buy what the robots produce? How will the jobless live in a fully automated world? The Automation Paradox informs the number one public fear of AI and robots, which is the loss of jobs. It also informs a slew of suggested policies to compensate for job automation. Universal Basic Income and Robot Tax are two examples. In fact South Korea has implemented a negative robot tax by reducing tax incentives for investment in automation. But, maybe, we need some fresh thinking about the challenge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Maybe we need to think outside the box of economic scarcity, of winners and of losers, of haves and of have-nots. Because, for as long as the economics of scarcity persist, the robots will create more inequality, more scarcity, more misery. Maybe we need to think of the future economy not as one of scarcity but as one of abundance.

02 Utopia

They say that futurists come in two flavours: prophets and wizards. Prophets warn of impending doom and ask to change our ways before is too late! Wizards see a way out of everything, by some kind of magic. I tend to side with the wizards. The magic out of joblessness and despair is to use our scientific knowledge and our technologies to radically change the economy. You see, technology is not a force of nature; technology is an ideology. And as such it is informed and guided by our values, beliefs, and aspirations.

We should therefore ask ourselves: to what ends shall we use automation? What purpose should automation serve? To enrich powerful corporations and the already super rich? Or to free humanity from having to sweat one’s face to eat bread?

How can democratize ownership of technology so that the bounty of automation is shared more equitably? How can we cut the Gordian knot of the Automation Paradox by moving beyond the dipole labor versus capital? What about knowledge? This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Paul Romer demonstrated how knowledge is an engine of growth. Can we spread the ownership of knowledge to the many? How can we ensure self-sovereignty of data – the fuel that runs in the algorithmic pipes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution -, quite possibly using cryptoeconomics and cryptogovernance?

Prophets warn of job apocalypse. Wizards conjure a green utopia of creative leisure for everyone. Up to you to decide whom to listen to.


Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann is considered the father of Gothic horror. They say that Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein under the influence of having read one of Hoffmann’s stories.


My next story is a fusion of two of Hoffmann’s gothic tales, and goes by the title Coppelia, the girl with the enamel eyes. It is one of the most famous and widely performed ballets. The story involves an evil genius, Dr Coppelius, who has built a life-size, dancing, doll. His diabolical plan is to bring the doll to life using a human sacrifice. As it happens, he does not have to look too hard to find someone to send to the afterworld: a young man, by the name of Franz, gets smitten with Coppelia, the lifeless doll. He just can’t take his eyes off her.

However, this young man is already betrothed to a local girl named Swanildha, and Swanildha is simply not the kind of girl to sit quietly and let someone else snap her man away. After a series of mishaps and adventures she discovers Dr Coppelius’s evil plan, shows Franz his folly by dressing up as a doll, and saves her hapless fiancé from an untimely death at the hands of the diabolical inventor.

The Coppelia story is a wonderful interplay between the human and the human artefact, the mirroring of roles and identities between the real and the imagined. Humans falling in love with human-like artefacts goes back thousands of years. Ovid in the Metamorphoses, recants how the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with his creation, Galatea; and how he begged Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to bring his white marble statue to life. The goddess obliged, and Pygmalion and Galatea married and lived happily ever after, in what is probably the only Greek myth with a happy ending…

Stories such as these inspired the construction of mechanical automata in the 18th and 19th century, which in turn inspired Hoffman to write his story, which in turn inspired Charles Babbage to invent his Analytical Machine, the first general purpose computer. Stories make us dream, and then they make us want to realize our dreams.

How many of us have dreamt of the modern, cinematic, robot divas, in films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Ex Machina: Maria, Rachel, Ava.

03 Ishiguro

The Coppellia myth lives on. Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University is creating life-like androids, mechanical imposters of real people. Staying in Japan, 2,000 “sex dolls” (not yet animated but very realistic looking) are sold in that country every year. They are called “Dutch Wives” and their buyers form bonds and relationships with them.

But, what is happening here? Can we really fall in love with “things”? With simulacra? With statues and androids and sex dolls?

Well, strangely enough, the answer is emphatically yes. We are victims of robot love because evolution has shaped our cognitive system to do exactly that! Let me explain myself. What makes us fall in love with robots, is exactly the same thing that makes us fall in love with each other – psychologists call it “theory of mind”. Our minds instinctively assume that other people have minds too, similar to ours. This cognitive ability emerges around the age of 3 to 4; and it is essential for empathy, for “feeling” for the other, for caring, for loving. Without theory of mind we would be a careless, selfish, species. We would never have literature, theatre, or art. We would be sociopaths.

Theory of mind compels us to project a “human-like mind” where there is none. If you have a dog, or a cat, or any pet, you know what I mean. We anthropomorphize animals all the time. But we also anthropomorphize inanimate objects, our cars for example (I often speak to my car, specially when it refuses to start on a cold day…). Religious veneration of rocks, statues and icons, are all examples of our minds projecting minds unto things.

In fact, you do not even need to see something in order to assume it has a mind. It is enough to listen to a human-like voice. That was the deep intuition of computer pioneer Alan Turning, when he suggested his “test” for telling if a machine is intelligent or not. If it sounds intelligent, it probably is.

04 Alexa

Intelligent machines come also in disembodied forms, like Digital Assistants or chatbots. It is not necessary to think of intelligent machines as human-looking androids only. Think of Alexa, Siri, Cortana – the real digital divas.

And there are many different kinds of love as well, beyond the erotic, or the romantic. It is the love among friends, siblings, parents and children. So here’s the dilemma: as we increasingly forge relationships with artificial beings, can we trust them? Can they really be our friends? You see, a real friend is one that prefers to tell you the truth, however painful. So far, AI algorithms are trained to flatter us, manipulate us, nudge us to behave in a controlled way. Algorithms want to make robots out of us.

What if an algorithm told you that John will make a better husband that Tom? Would you believe it? Believe it blindly, without asking why? More and more people do exactly that. Over 61% of adults age 18-29 are using a dating app in the US, with 84% stating they do so in order to form a long-term romantic relationship. These dating apps are driven by AI algorithms – that tell you whom to love. How is this different from Dr Coppelius convincing Franz that he should abandon Swanilda in favor of a mechanical girl with enamel eyes?

05 rachel

Phillip K. Dick, the sci-fi novelist, possessed a deep intuition about a future where machines imitated humans: that is would be a future of paranoia. As digital avatars become more life-like and capable of resembling anyone, real or imaginary; as digital assistants can have conversations that feel completely natural, the distinction between real humans and artificial humans will begin to fade. It will not be too difficult for maleficent criminals to develop a digital avatar of you, and have that avatar empty your bank account, or commit a crime. Neither will be hard to imagine how the fake news of today will become the fake realities of tomorrow.

So let me suggest an addition to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Here’s my Fourth Law of Robotics: Robots must always declare they are robots and never pretend to be humans.

As for the laws of love, I would just leave them as they are…


The third story I want to tell you is from a book written some 2.5 thousand years ago by Plato, one of the founders of western philosophy. The title of the book is “Republic”.

06 Sparta

For some context, Plato lived in very turbulent times. He was about 23 years old when Athens capitulated to Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. The first thing that the victorious Spartans did was to replace Athenian democracy with the oligarchic rule of thirty aristocrats, known as the “Thirty Tyrants”.

Plato was pleased. He was an aristocrat, and one of the tyrants was an uncle of his from his mother’s side. Moreover, he was deeply disillusioned with democracy. (by way of note let me add here that Athenian democracy was a direct form of democracy, not the representative kind of modernity). The reason that Plato, and many other Athenians (mostly aristocrats) hated democracy was that they hated how easily demagogues swayed public opinion. Indeed, Plato felt that democracy was the reason that Athens had lost the war to Sparta. So he was pleased to see the end of it.

But what happened next troubled him even more. The Thirty Tyrants turned out to be even worse that the demagogues. They initiated a pogrom of their political opponents, and soon they begun to confiscate property belonging to other aristocrats. For the record, they were ousted by a popular uprising a year later, and democracy returned in Athens.

But for young Plato nothing was the same. Equally disillusioned both with democracy as well as oligarchy, he sought to imagine a better approach to government, and the Republic was the result of Plato’s thinking.

In the Republic Plato suggests that society should be ruled by a class of “philosopher-kings”. They are experts who possess the necessary knowledge for running a polis, a city, or a country – holding all three branches of government, the executive, judicial and legislative. Very importantly, the philosopher-kings hold very high moral standards. They are selfless. To make sure of that Plato suggests that they should not be allowed to have children, so that they are totally dedicated to the welfare of their fellow citizens and not bound by family ties and obligations. Philosopher kings would be selected from across the populace; among the brightest of children regardless of their family’s status or wealth.

Plato believed that the ideal society should be run by experts selected and groomed in a meritocratic way. In many ways, his argument sounds convincing. Wouldn’t you rather have experts running things than non-experts? Where the Republic fails is in attributing humans with unnatural and impossible levels of moral integrity and selflessness. History has shown that the first goal of all ruling elites is their self-preservation. Worryingly, by suggesting that society is separated in rulers and ruled, Plato’s Republic provides the philosophical foundation for totalitarianism, as the German philosopher Karl Popper has noted. For isn’t what communism, fascism and nazism suggest too? “Ideal societies” run by “ideal humans”?

But what if it was possible for technology to deliver omniscient experts who were also morally perfect? What if we had infallible AI’s instead of fallible humans running our countries? Could we see a new kind of totalitarianism rise in the 21st century, where the AI’s become Plato’s philosopher kings?


Making the right decisions in a complex, highly interconnected world requires superhuman abilities, let alone strong moral fiber. Big Data and AI will help us solve for global challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation, food security, health – to mention a few. Big Data and AI will help us make our cities better places to live in. The opportunity is indeed great.

But, as I said before, technology is an ideology. The same machines that can help us built smarter cities can be used to manipulate citizens and enforce obedience to the diktats of an elite. It is already happening in China, where personal data are collected and processed, and citizens are given a positive credit score for “good behaviour” and a negative credit score for “bad behaviour”. Totalitarian ideologies will use AI to solidify their rule. AI is ideal for citizen surveillance and control.

But what about democracies? How should we use AI to increase – not decrease – freedom and liberty?

There has been surprisingly little thought given to this question so far. Maybe because we take our democracies for granted. We should not. Also maybe because we have allowed ourselves to conflate freedom to choose with freedom to choose what to buy. The big tech corporations – that thrive because of our democratic institutions – are making incredible amounts of money by harnessing our data through AI to make better consumers out of us. Consumerism, however, is not democracy; it’s just consumerism.

Last Man

In a Platonic Consumerist Republic the AIs decide what you read, what news you get, what you eat and where to eat, who you befriend and who you marry, how you entertain yourself. Because AIs know more about you than anyone, including yourself, they are much wiser than you. They simply know better. In this consumerist scenario AI is “augmenting” you because it enables you to make better choices, without the need to worry your head too much. You can just sit back, relax, and let the AI take care of everything. Just ask Alexa.

Augmentation sounds like a good deal, until you realise that every augmentation is also an amputation. Augmented by a car I do not need to use my legs anymore. Augmented by Alexa to keep my calendar in order I do not need to remember what I m supposed to do tomorrow. Just ask Alexa.

When AIs do everything for us, when we do not need to think, or take responsibility for our decisions, we become like children, we are infantilized. We live comfortable lives in apparent harmony, just doing what our smart overlords recommend we did. We become what Nietzsche described as the last men, and last women.

Ladies and gentlemen,

AI has been likened to electricity. And just like electricity AI is ushering a new industrial revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Electricity made all things come to life. AI is making all things intelligent. For an engineer this is an opportunity to design better systems to advance economic prosperity.

But something that will so profoundly change our world should not be viewed only through the lens of engineering and economics. Indeed, AI is a technology that needs to be deeply humanized – in order to be democratized – as soon as possible, to be transformed in our own image, lest it transforms us into something terrible. To humanize AI we need to come together across academic disciplines and walks of life and answer some age-old questions.

What does it mean to be human?

What should be our purpose?

What should we aspire to be in relation to ourselves, our families, our societies, our planet, the cosmos, the future?

These are questions that have tormented many big minds over many centuries, but in our present days of mindless entertainment and frivolous pastimes we seem to have become too cynical, or too lazy or lethargic to ask them.

It’s time to start asking those questions again, with renewed urgency.

Thank you

Public Goods, commodities and social contract

Are education or healthcare public goods or commodities? Should the State control education or healthcare, or should it allow market forces to set prices and utilize resources?  Questions such as these seem to beg answers depending on the respondent’s political ideology.

Socialists, or statists in general, would argue that they are “public goods”; that the state must be their arbitrator. Liberals and libertarians would argue for the opposite; they are “commodities” which ought to be exchanged in free markets. Who is right? Can there be a common basis upon which one may judge the two opposing views?

Before I suggest such a basis let me reveal to the reader that, as a principle, I do not believe in public goods. The reason for that is that I consider absurd the notion that some third party (the State) could, or should, think of what is good for me better than I do. So my opposition to the idea of public goods is a fundamental one. It stems  not only from my instinctive mistrust of the State but from a host of rational arguments, like the one I mentioned above. Furthermore, experience has shown that socialized education and healthcare systems have failed in almost every country that has been tried. “Almost”.

The other day, as I was having a conversation about the (failed) education system in Greece with a number of friends, one of them pointed out that there exist in the world states which have socialized their education with excellent results. He mentioned Finland.

It is true that Finland reformed its public education system in the early 90s and today has what is considered by most the best educational system in the world. Doesn’t this “prove” that education can be – or is – a public good, and achieving high quality for best price is only a matter of “better” management from a State?

Firstly, I am not knowledgeable of the cost per capita for public education in Finland in order to provide a full economic analysis. Perhaps it is too costly, perhaps not. I would like to respond to the point raised by my friend (and by many other I am sure) by focusing on something beyond economics. Besides Finland there are a few other countries too, Scandinavian mostly, which seem to have achieved high standards in socializing education and health. How do they do it?

I would like to suggest that what makes the difference between success and failure in the socializing of education or healthcare is the trustworthiness of the social contract in a given State.

Counties that benefit from strong social contracts have a good chance of managing education and healthcare centrally. Countries where social contracts are not that strong, or failing, ought to take the view that education and healthcare are better served if considered commodities. Greece is an example of a country with a very brittle social contract. Mistrust for the State is fully justifiable: the Greek State does not serve citizens or society, it is an apparatus used by political parties to buy votes in exchange of life-long guaranteed positions in the public sector. Considering education and healthcare in Greece as public goods serves only to make the system cronies richer and more powerful, at the expense of tax payers and mostly the poor, the main beneficiaries of public services.

So it is not ideology that ought to determine one’s views. A more insightful analysis on the relation between citizens and the State, as well as the quality of democratic institutions, is also relevant.