Analysis Algorithms and politics

Artificial intelligence in the service of the far right: looking at Fratelli d’Italia

Fratelli d'Italia, the post-fascist party that won a majority in the Italian elections, had plans to use artificial intelligence to assign jobs to young people. Such an initiative is not new to European right-wingers. Algorithm Watch looks at the links between AI and the far right.

Published on 2 November 2022 at 10:32

Back in April, the far-right Fratelli d'Italia party (FdI) presented “Notes on a Conservative Program”. In a white paper, 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 FdI published prior to the election on 25 September, when they became Italy’s leading party with 26% of the vote.

Ironically, the neofascists had most likely intended to use AI 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, whose research focuses on social networks, digital platforms and work, and privacy.

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Guido Crosetto, the Fratelli d'Italia co-founder who edited the white paper, is not considered knowledgeable on technology. However, he once tweeted that he was “in favour of introducing artificial intelligence to the Ministry of Justice”. 

“I haven’t met a fascist geek in Italy,” Casilli tells us. (He added later, posting on Twitter, "but [I] left the country two decades ago, and I've met many elsewhere in Europe.")

AI 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, but 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 AI are known to have been fascinated with extreme-right views. William Shockley, a founder of Silicon Valley, was an ardent eugenicist. Another AI pioneer, Stanford professor John McCarthy, believed that women were biologically less gifted in maths and science.

In 2020, the founder of facial-recognition firm Clearview AI collaborated with the 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. In 1990 he had been charged with a hate crime for shooting at a synagogue. This revelation lost the company a contract with Utah’s Department of Public Safety. 

Fascists – irrationally, but unsurprisingly – worship technology, insofar as they believe in it as a way to reassert inegalitarianism, Eco wrote

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”: people who subscribe to the political philosophy that democracy has failed and that there needs to be a return to authoritarian rule. In her essay “The Silicon Ideology”, critic Josephine Armistead describes one of the neoreactionary fantasies as a world of aristocrats ruled by a tech CEO or a super-intelligent AI.

An early incubator of these ideas was, a discussion forum created by the California-based Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), which holds 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. A man called Roko Mijic – a self-described “tradhumanist” – 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.

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 FdI 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 scoring system for job centres to use to decide how best to allocate welfare resources. Staff at the centres were widely regarded as overworked and short on time to give to people registering as unemployed. The scoring system used information gathered from registrants (age, duration of unemployment, etc). 

The system was used to sort the jobseekers into three categories, which determined how much help they received. Single mothers, people with disabilities or who lived in the countryside disproportionately ended up in the third category. In practice these people received little help, as this category was considered “not worth investing in”. Similarly to the FdI proposal, it was very difficult to appeal against the algorithm’s decision. The system was scrapped in 2019. 

Meanwhile in France, Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017 on a promise to turn France into a “startup nation.” Around the same time, a 24-year-old “young genius” businessman called Paul Duan started a public relations blitz. He said he could reduce unemployment by 10 percent by designing an algorithm that – similarly to the Fratelli d’Italia 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 does not work.

“This kind of algorithmic solution to unemployment shows a continuum between far-right politicians in Italy, politicians in Poland and centre-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. The Italian proposal, the way it is phrased, is very reactionary and authoritarian.”

👉 Original article on AlgorithmWatch

Vitalik Buterin, “Ethereum’s benevolent dictator”

In a conversation with Vitalik Buterin, New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein digs into Buterin’s most known creature: Ethereum. Buterin “wrote the white paper for the ideas behind it when he was just a teenager”, explains Klein. The “Ethereum’s benevolent dictator” has become something like the philosopher king of crypto”, he continues. His insight was that

if you could program a currency like Bitcoin that cut out the need for a central authority, then you could use that same cryptographic technology to make almost a programming language that could then program any kind of digital agreement or contract and bind anybody who agreed to it in almost any digital way. And that meant that it could do almost anything. Bitcoin can be digital money, but Ethereum can be digital infrastructure. It can be the structure — a binding structure — of how people cooperate online. And Ethereum took off. Its cryptocurrency, Ether, is the second most valuable behind only Bitcoin.

A previous version of this article claimed that Mr. Mijic had been banned from MIRI events. This was incorrect. We sincerely regret the error.

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