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Will democracies stand up to big brother?

By Simon Johnson, Daron Acemoglu and Sylvia Barmack

12 Jun 2023 · 4 min read

informed Summary

  1. Fiction writers have long warned of a dystopian future where every human action is monitored by a centralized authority. We are now moving closer to such a reality, similar to George Orwell's 1984, argues the author.

CAMBRIDGE – Fiction writers have long imagined scenarios in which every human action is monitored by some malign centralized authority. But now, despite their warnings, we find ourselves careening toward a dystopian future worthy of George Orwell’s 1984. The task of assessing how to protect our rights – as consumers, workers, and citizens – has never been more urgent.

One sensible proposal is to limit patents on surveillance technologies to discourage their development and overuse. All else being equal, this could tilt the development of AI-related technologies away from surveillance applications – at least in the United States and other advanced economies, where patent protections matter, and where venture capitalists will be reluctant to back companies lacking strong intellectual-property rights. But even if such sensible measures are adopted, the world will remain divided between countries with effective safeguards on surveillance and those without them. We therefore also need to consider the legitimate basis for trade between these emergent blocs.

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