Josephine Lulamae interviewed me in the website of the NGO AlgorithmWatch about the a trend in European far-right policy: the preference for algorithmic solutions to social problems, such as unemployment, precarity, disability.
Italian neofascists considered building an authoritarian AI to solve unemployment. They are far from alone. – AlgorithmWatch
Back in April, the far-right Brothers of Italy party presented “Notes on a Conservative Program”. In a chapter on work, they called for an “artificial intelligence system” that “traces the list of young people who finish high school and university every year and connects them to companies in the sector.” This, the authors of the chapter wrote, would finally solve “youth unemployment,” as “the young person will no longer be able to choose whether to work or not, but [will be] bound to accept the job offer for himself (sic), for his family and for the country, under penalty of loss of all benefits with the application of a system of sanctions.”
The proposal did not make it to the final program that Brothers of Italy published prior to the election on 25 September, when they became Italy’s largest party with 26% of the vote.
Ironically, the neofascists most likely had intended to use Artificial Intelligence to “create a fog around them, around what they are and what they want, because they want to attract a more moderate right-wing electorate,” says sociologist Antonio Casilli. Guido Crosetto, the Brothers of Italy co-founder who edited the work chapter, is not considered knowledgeable on technology, though he once tweeted about being “in favor of introducing artificial intelligence to the Ministry of Justice”. Unlike in other countries, there is no noticeable overlap between the Italian tech scene and far-right parties like Lega Nord and Brothers of Italy.
“I haven’t met a fascist geek in Italy,” Casilli tells us. (He added later, posting on Twitter, “but I’ve left the country two decades ago, and I’ve met many elsewhere in Europe.”)
Artificial Intelligence and the far-right
In his essay Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco, who was a child during Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, lists some of the characteristics of fascism. As well as being into a “cult of tradition” that mythologizes and idolizes the past (e.g. Mussolini’s call for a “new Rome”), fascists also – irrationally, unsurprisingly – worship technology, insofar as they believe in it as a way to reassert inegalitarianism, Eco wrote.
In the United States, powerful people in the field of Artificial Intelligence are known to have been fascinated with extreme-right views. William Shockley, also known as Silicon Valley’s first founder, was an ardent eugenicist. Another AI pioneer, Stanford professor John McCarthy, believed that women were biologically less gifted in math and science. In 2020, the founder of face recognition firm Clearview AI collaborated with far-right extremist Chuck Johnson in the development of Clearview AI’s software. A few weeks later, the CEO of the AI surveillance firm Banjo was exposed to be a former member of the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who in 1990 was charged with a hate crime for shooting at a synagogue. (This revelation lost the company a contract with Utah’s Department of Public Safety.)
In 2016, one of the groups that far-right provocateur Milo Yianoppolous featured in his (ghostwritten) Breitbart “guide to the far-right” were the “neoreactionaries”: folks who subscribe to the political philosophy that democracy has failed and a return to authoritarian rule is required. In her essay “The Silicon Ideology”, critic Josephine Armistead describes one of the neoreactionary fantasies to be aristocrats or monarchs in a world ruled by a tech CEO or a super-intelligent AI.
An early incubator of these ideas was LessWrong.com, a discussion forum created by the California-based Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), which holds – without proof – that a general AI with potential for world domination will be created. People associated with MIRI “do basically no research and tell scary stories about how AI will turn us all into paper clips,” says researcher David Gerard, “It’s a huge distraction.”
Back in 2010, some LessWrong users were chatting about how to live forever by being reincarnated on a hard drive by a godlike AI. Then a man called Roko Mijic – a self-described “tradhumanist” barred from MIRI events for sexual harassment – posted the argument that anyone who imagines this future “AI god” but doesn’t help fund its development risks one day being tortured by it. Several users had breakdowns. Famous MIRI donors include tech mogul Peter Thiel and cryptocurrency founder Vitalik Buterin. “They’re reactionaries whose version of libertarian economics ends at neofeudalism with them on top,” Gerard says.
“Algorithmic solutions” to unemployment in the EU
According to Casilli, the Brothers of Italy party’s “Artificial Intelligence” proposal actually has a lot in common with previous proposals for using automated systems to tackle or manage unemployment that have been made by center-right or liberal parties in other countries of the European Union.
For example, in 2014, the then-liberal Polish government introduced a ranking system for job centers to use to decide how to best allocate welfare resources. The centers were widely regarded as overworked and short on time to pay attention to people who were registering there as unemployed. For the scoring system, information was gathered from people who registered as unemployed (age, duration of unemployment, etc.) The system was then used to sort them into three categories, which determined how much help a jobseeker received. Single mothers, people with disabilities or who lived in the countryside disproportionately ended up in the third category, which in practice received little help from job centers, as this category was considered “not worth investing in”. And, similarly to the Brothers of Italy proposal, it was hardly possible to appeal against the algorithm’s decision. The system was scrapped in 2019.
Meanwhile in 2017 France, Emmanuel Macron was elected president and promised to turn France into a “startup nation.” Around the same time, a 24-year-old “young genius” businessman called Paul Duan started a public relation blitz. He said he could reduce unemployment by 10% by designing an algorithm that – similarly to the Brothers in Italy proposal – would help people find jobs by matching them with potential employers and assisting them through the application process. Years later, the public administration that originally commissioned the project issued a report to say that the algorithm to match jobseekers with open positions does not work.
“This kind of algorithmic solution to unemployment shows a continuum between far-right politicians in Italy, politicians in Poland and center-right politicians like Macron,” says Casilli. He adds, “They are different shades of the same political ideology, some are presented as market-friendly solutions like the French one, others are presented as extremely bureaucratic and boring like the Polish one, and the Italian proposal, the way it is phrased, is really reactionary and authoritarian.”
edited on October 11 to better reflect Mr. Casilli’s position