The last human prime minister

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
16 October, 2020

A calendar app on Jacinda Ardern’s monitor shows the year is 2023. Outside is cold and threatening rain. Another day in Wellington.

Ardern leans back in her brown leather chair and squeezes the lid closed on the ballpoint pen, thinking through yesterday’s meeting with a deputy secretary about the wonderful success in halving the housing wait list – a key Labour promise in the 2020 election.

She was happy and wanted to know how the computer models helped achieve this. It wasn’t obvious when they looked at it, the secretary said, so they would manually review it and come back to her.

Ardern couldn’t shake a strange feeling. If anyone knew how the models worked, it’d be the secretary. And if he couldn’t say, then who was really giving her the report? Was it the secretary or the computer models?

The prime minister wondered how many reports over the last three years actually involved human beings who really understood how artificial intelligence worked.

The housing outcome was good news, sure. But what if the computers slowly began to flag a slightly different set of data about housing? Would the programmers catch the subtle shift?

Apparently not, because it was a bit too complex even for the secretary. He mentioned the people who know about housing aren’t the same people who programmed the algorithm. Also, it’s not like there was one programmer. A team wrote the code, each working on only a small chunk.

Maybe it was the weather, but a thought popped into Ardern’s mind: does the complexity of this AI give it free will?

The raindrops running down the windowpane don’t have free will. But human free will is based on the fact that you can’t predict what I’ll do. Brains are too complicated. Yet if you knew every input and variable going into my head, you could probably predict my behaviour.

After all, the only thing that gave Ardern the impression of free will is that even she didn’t know what she was going to do sometimes.

Staring out the 9th floor window, Ardern realised she didn’t need to hear the secretary’s answer. If the algorithm was too complex to understand, something a lot bigger than the weather had just changed.

Today it was confirmed that the government’s AI had something like free will. It was also the last day that a human prime minister was fully in charge of New Zealand.

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