As the country goes to the polls for the UK general election 2015, The Drum takes a look at how technology could impact on politics in 10 years' time.
Despite the quickening pace of technological adoption by society at large, the UK’s election process appears very old-fashioned, backwards at times, resistant to change or modernisation.
And while large parts of our lives are seamlessly played out online every day, manifestos are still confined to pamphlets, policies boomed from lecterns, ballots cast with a pencil on a string in a local primary school, and the postal vote about as advanced as our system gets.
But given the technology available, and assuming a public appetite for modernisation, what could a general election look like in 2025?
Kenneth Cukier, data editor, The Economist
In 10 years, every political party in Britain will maintain a database of all citizens to target their message, fundraising, volunteering and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
The system will identify whether they vote and for whom they cast a ballot (inferred with 99 per cent accuracy). It will know everything: where they live, what they buy, who their friends are, their bank details (again, inferred but accurate) and their location at all times going back a decade.
It will include whether they have children, the car they drive, their medical history, web viewing behaviour and search queries. Even fitness-tracker data, frequent-flyer info and Tinder dates. (The only thing it won’t know is television-viewing habits. TV will be dead.)
This will allow the parties to better target their message directly to a voter’s individual interests. Sloan-Ranger pensioners? Covered. Post-hipster, clean-shaven middle managers who are lactose intolerant? Gotcha. Stay-at-home mums with MBAs? No sweat.
Yes, politicians will use the data to speak with forked tongues. But they do this anyway already. The difference is that today the parties survey voters to identify what messages are best. These constitute ‘stated preferences’ in the language of economics. Tomorrow, political parties will develop statistical models that can identify voter interests before they have even articulated them. It’s not so much ‘revealed preferences’ but ‘predictive preferences’.
On election day, the party you support for will send a reminder to vote – it will know if you haven’t yet because it didn’t identify you waiting in line at a voting station via your cellphone’s GPS. Later in the day, it will add pressure by sending text messages to your friends who have voted – the system knows these friends because you answer their calls within two rings and quickly return their emails.
To vote, no ID is required: facial recognition and a palm scan is all that’s needed. And the very act of voting will be old-school. Most people will do it online. Yet the political parties will say their models are so accurate that people shouldn’t have to actually cast a ballot – their choices can be inferred.
By 2025, the whole election process will be driven by artificial intelligence. But the public doesn’t mind. In fact, they embrace it. After all, it represents the first time intelligence of any form has made its way into politics.
Ian Pearson, futurologist, Futurizon
However frustrating voting on paper may be, the truth is that many electronic voting systems are being withdrawn and replaced by paper. Programming errors, poor machine maintenance, hackers and fraud are the usual problems. Security is the biggest issue.
We are well used to companies announcing gadgets with watertight security only to have it hacked within hours of release. We must assume that same risk when electronic voting is used since the motivation to cheat is high, and bearing in mind the rise of both cyber-crime and cyber-war – rogue states and terrorists have an obvious interest in perverting elections.
Until we do manage to make security that is watertight, and that includes making all the hardware and code simple enough to be verifiably free of back doors and errors, and interfaces that are idiot-proof, we may have to put up with paper voting.
Security risks won't stop there though. By 2025, it will be far easier to sneak extremely tiny cameras into polling stations to see how people vote, while identifying the voter via face recognition.
It isn't all bad news. Artificial intelligence is developing extremely quickly and provided we could accept the security risks, it would be possible to have a true House of AI Representatives, where each voter has an AI agent voting on their behalf on each and every issue. This doesn't require a particularly high level AI, so wouldn't need huge computing resources.
Today's representative democracy is in strong need of an overhaul in any case, so why not go the whole way? Each individual would communicate their preferences to their AI agent. They might simply pick a party and it would take on all the defaults for that party. Then depending on how much they are interested in being further involved, they could edit its behaviours on a wide range of policies.
Or it could consult them if it thinks a particular vote needs a more interactive approach. A simple variant of this would be a basic preference database. This 'true' democracy would represent everyone on every issue directly.
We may ask whether we really want such a thing as true democracy. Perhaps we really prefer a simple representative democracy where hopefully wiser people make decisions on our behalf in our best interests. It is possible to have both, with the House of AI Representatives used as a current opinion survey used by elected humans.
Will Harvey, innovation lead, VCCP
In trying to envision what the future of the elections will look like, you need to take into account what the political parties themselves might look like. With the growing ability for individuals to be heard through social media, the importance of freedom of speech could have a serious impact on the shape of the parties. We have seen an increasing shift in the parties we can vote for – a move away from the traditional two horse race – and I feel our options in 2025 will be dramatically different that the ones we see today.
As we consume media through so many new channels on so many devices, the promotional opportunities for the parties will increase, with the ability to do more hyper-local campaign targeting. For example, Twitter recently announced that for the upcoming elections it would be using postcode targeting to help parties canvass – meaning they would be able to target specific boroughs that may be opposition strongholds, for example.
However exciting the premise of a more digital, connected election is, we must recognise the role of traditional media. With the increasingly more connected generation becoming old enough to vote by 2025, a problem that parties will face is the disconnect the younger generation feels with the voting system itself. However, the older generation will still count for a majority of the voting population, and many are more comfortable with traditional media communication.
I imagine seeing parties using traditional media channels to drive more people to vote due to the larger network with greater reach, while using digital channels to deliver more party-specific and targeted campaigns.
The way in which we actually vote hasn't evolved to keep up with the technological world we now live in. The current process – going into a booth in a primary school and drawing a cross in a box – deserves a well-needed update to keep up with the times.
Beyond just digitising the process, we could have a system that would utilise biometrics to verify your identity. We are seeing an increasing number of sensors in our personal devices, from fingerprint readers which unlock phones, to heart rate monitors in our wearables. Why couldn't we vote from the comfort of home, with a more secure verification system using this kind of technology? The ease of the process would encourage more voters – voting could become as simple as unlocking your phone!
Mark Holden, head of futures, Arena Media
We've only scratched the surface of how technology might shape politics and the democratic process so far. e-Petitions are only a very small step towards using technology to enable direct citizen participation in policy-making, and really the fundamental policy process at Westminster has changed very little in relation to technology. But in the next 10 years I believe this will start to change.
Connected technologies will reach near universal access, public apathy with party politics will grow further, and parties themselves will experience pain and deadlock in messy coalition politics. This I think will drive Westminster to make direct citizen action a much bigger part of policy delivery.
Technology will be an enabler, and I can envisage a kind of cross-platform e-voting platform which enables citizens to cast their votes on government policy agenda and even vote alongside parliament on key pieces of policy, in real time. Citizens will feel they have a greater stake in politics beyond the electoral cycle and politicians will use citizen input to help break policy deadlock and act with a clear public mandate.
The shape and nature of political parties will start to change too. The rise of Ukip and the SNP have shown the power and appeal of parties with a single or narrow set of issues. In future, I can see either formal or quasi-political entities emerging from the existing digital campaigning platforms, such as Avaaz or Change.org, who might find themselves frustrated with the extent to which they can get political parties to act on their behalf.
They probably won't be political parties as we know them, but potentially a coordinated network of independent issue-driven candidates who build their campaigns through sophisticated digital networks that are able to build a kind of 'political graph' around each one of us, and invite direct participation for issues that we specifically care about.
And, if citizens play a more direct role in the movement of policy through government, these campaigning networks will see their role and influence grow – because they'll be able to 'activate' citizen action in near real time to shape key decisions made in government.