Our two biggest challenges | Ott Observations

I think our country today faces two immense and complex challenges, but they aren’t what you think. 

It’s not the economy, the environment or how to handle Russia, China or North Korea. And they certainly aren’t which books to ban, who gets to use which bathroom or if racism is part of a history text.

The first challenge is to determine to what extent the First Amendment protects lying. Thanks to the Internet and social media, lies are rapidly amplified to millions vs. a fib that used to get passed on by word of mouth.

Correspondingly, the impact of lies is also amplified.

Part of the challenge is to determine if the lie matters. Is there a difference between a purposeful exaggeration and a lie? Most of us have lied and told our children there really is a Santa Claus. That’s a far cry from lying about a presidential election being stolen.

In one of the many lawsuits about our past election, there appears this phrase: “The intentional dissemination of known falsehoods aimed at sowing doubt about the integrity of our election threatens our very ability to function as a democracy.”

Where does freedom of speech end and insurrection start? In the next year, we are going to find out where our judicial system stands on this subject. If our courts determine not all speech is free, they are also going to have to figure out the punishment for harmful lying.

Our second challenge is related to the first. 

Artificial Intelligence is created by vast computer resources. These computers can gather tremendous amounts of data and distill it into something we want to know. 

I had a recent experience to illustrate how pervasive AI has already become. 

Last month, I vacationed in Iceland. I sent a text to my sister of a picture of an active volcano. Within 24 hours, she was getting ads and emails asking if she wanted to join some volcano special interest group. 

So was I.

I think we’re all for AI helping doctors determine more accurate diagnoses than they could do on their own. AI can already write a better term paper than most college students. 

Is that cheating? All you have to do is show one second of interest in our past election and AI will send you every lie that’s out there.

Computers don’t have a conscience or a value system – at least thus far. If we determine some lies are unlawful, who do we punish? How? Do the search engine and social media giants bear any responsibility for spreading lies that we determine are unlawful, especially those that threaten the functionality of our democracy?

Even more so than these threats, I am concerned about our government’s ability to manage them. 

Regulatory laws are made by Congress. Our representatives’ views on free speech can vary daily based on what is politically favorable to them in the moment. Few have shown any bedrock principal they are willing to stand on that may be right but unpopular.

Congress mostly consists of very old men. I don’t know for certain but I suspect most are barely functional with a smart phone, relying on staff to function in this social media universe. 

How are they going to find the right balance between free speech and regulation of dangerous speech? Who are they going to hold responsible for unlawful speech? Do they even understand what AI is and all the implications?

The application of laws to specific situations has to be determined through judicial decisions. 

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested in an opinion that all speech is not protected, providing the example that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater to provoke a panic.

Today, we have court opinions overturning each other, as each side seeks a judge who shares their political ideological perspective. We have a Supreme Court comfortable with overturning 50 years of precedent. 

This court also seems comfortable with lying on their disclosure forms about expensive gifts, acting offended that any citizen might question if their integrity is for sale.

We worry about the Russians or the Chinese messing with our heads and corrupting our elections. They already are, and it’s too easy. All they have to do is start some lies and our own computers do the rest.

This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue – it’s an American issue. 

Democracies depend on the transparency of truth, however unpopular. Bias to truth is now perhaps the most important basis for selecting our leaders. And those leaders are going to have to acquire the knowledge to regulate all modes of information exchange, even from computers, within well understood parameters of what is and isn’t free speech.

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