Giving Voice to Digital Democracies


Giving Voice to Digital Democracies: The Social Impact of Artificially Intelligent Communications Technology  

‘Hey Siri, how should I vote in the next national election?’

Using manifesto promises and gathered data, Siri (or Cortana, or Alexa, or any other virtual assistant) could determine which party championed her owner’s core socio-political and economic values – or she could name the party offering the most enticing tax breaks to the corporation that created her. And if her response was based on an ethically dubious pre-programmed agenda, who would know?

Automated conversational agents are prototypical examples of Artificially Intelligent Communications Technology (AICT), and such systems make extensive use of speech technology, natural language processing, smart telecommunications, and social media. AICT is already rapidly transforming modern digital democracies by enabling unprecedentedly swift and diffuse language-based interactions. Therefore it offers alarming opportunities for distortion and deception. Unbalanced data sets can covertly reinforce problematical social biases, while microtargeted messaging and the distribution of malinformation can be used for malicious purposes.

Responding to these urgent concerns, this Humanities-led project brings together experts from linguistics, philosophy, speech technology, computer science, psychology, sociology, and political theory to develop design objectives that can guide the creation of more ethical and trustworthy AICT systems. Such systems will have the potential to effect more positively the kinds of social change that will shape modern digital democracies in the very near future.

To this end, the various activities undertaken as part of this project explore several key ethical and social issues relating to AICT, and these events are designed to establish a dialogue involving academia, industry, government, and the public. The central research questions that provide a primary focus for the interactions include:

  • What form should an applied ethics of AICT take?
  • To what extent can social biases be removed from AICT?
  • How can the dangers of dis/mis/malinformation in AICT applications be reduced most effectively?
  • How can ethical AICT have a greater positive impact on social change?

This project is part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change, Cambridge, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation.


From left to right: Ian Roberts, Marcus Tomalin, Ann Copestake and Bill Byrne


Click here to meet the team. 


Various workshops and an international conference will be organised as part of this project.


Previous events


Mindful of AI: Language,Technology and Mental Health, 1 - 2 October 2020

Fact-Checking Hackathon, 10-12 January 2020

The Future of Artificial Intelligence: Language, Society, Technology, 30 September 2019

The Future of Artificial Intelligence: Language, Gender, Technology, 17 May 2019

The Future of Artificial Intelligence: Language, Ethics, Technology, 25 March 2019


Related events

Artificial Intelligence and Social Change, a Festival of Ideas talk, 19 October 2019

Disempowering Hate Speech: How to Make Social Media Less Harmful, a Festival of Ideas talk, 19 October 2019


Panel discussions

• 28 February 2018: Professor Steve Young (Apple), Professor David Runciman (POLIS), Dr Hugo Zaragoza (Amazon, Barcelona)

• 7 March 2018: Dr Eva von Redecker (Social Philosophy, Humboldt University), Dr Catherine Flick (Computing & Social Responsibility, De Montfort University), Mevan Babakar (Full Fact)

• 14 March 2018: Professor Ross Anderson (ICT, Computer Laboratory), Dr Sander van der Linden (Psychology), Professor Tobias Matzner (Media, Algorithms, Society, Paderborn University)