AI Politician Promises Unbiased Decisions


Intelligent robot politician aiming to stand in 2020

An AI program is attempting to become the first ever virtual politician in the world

I ask about President Trump; I ask about Brexit. All I get are canned responses that dodge my queries. Typical politician.

But SAM, who I’m talking to over Facebook Messenger, is far from being a regular lawmaker. She is touted as the world’s first virtual politician.

And this isn’t just some prank. SAM’s creator wants the robo-representative to run for office in 2020.

“There is a lot of bias in the ‘analogue’ practice of politics right now,” says Nick Gerritsen, who unveiled SAM last week. “There seems to be so much existing bias that countries around the world seem unable to address fundamental and multiple complex issues like climate change and equality.”

“That is without even entering the discussion around fake news and the global decline in journalism,” the New Zealander tells Tech in Asia.

It turns out that SAM wasn’t dodging my questions – Gerritsen is still teaching the AI how to respond, so for now she – that’s the gender its inventors decided upon – is focused on issues specific to New Zealand, like policies around housing, education, and immigration.

When I ask SAM about those, it offers detailed responses, and sometimes even solicits my opinion:


Biased bots

As well as learning within Messenger, the virtual politician is being shaped by a survey on her homepage.

Gerritsen, 49, acknowledges that humans can bake their biases into the algorithms they create – a study earlier this year found AI exhibited racist and sexist tendencies. “We do not view bias as just a challenge to technology solutions,” he says. And so AI, while imperfect, still has something to offer in terms of bridging what seems to be a growing political and cultural divide in many countries.

Which brings us to Trump. Gerritsen – unlike SAM – has an opinion on the avid tweeter, keen golfer, noted racist, and alleged sexual assault enthusiast.

“Personally, I think he represents a very sad period in US and global history. But it is obviously exciting for the Asia-Pacific region as it is evidence in the rapidly shifting centre of gravity – the world is flowing in our direction. This presents new challenges but also a world of opportunity,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that SAM is happy for the data around Trump and his impact to speak for itself.”

SAM is moulded not just by Trump and the bitter US presidential election, but by a tsunami of partisan rancor.

“We’ve seen in the US, UK, and Spain recently […] that politicians may be wildly out of touch with what people actually think and want. Perhaps it’s time to see whether technology can produce better results for the people than politicians. The technology we propose would be better than traditional polling because it would be like having a continuous conversation – and it could give the ‘silent majority’ a voice,” states Gerritsen.

But the techno-utopianism might be short-lived if fake news morphs into fake politicos – just look at that Black Mirror episode in which Waldo, a cartoon character, turns political and ultimately ushers in a climate of insults and authoritarian ad hominem attacks.

Gerritsen has been an entrepreneur since the age of 17. Now he’s a commercial lawyer specializing in intellectual property as well as a startup investor through his Crisp Start firm – and a recognizable face in Wellington’s tech scene.

“I am not afraid to take action and test ideas and get huge satisfaction from opening up new ‘spaces’ and encouraging others to join in,” he says. “I believe that the future is ours to create. Technology has to be an enabler and I react strongly to those who promote technological determinism.”

By late 2020, when New Zealand has its next general election, Gerritsen believes SAM will be much more advanced. And then she might be able to run as a candidate, though Gerritsen manages a politician’s sidestep when asked about the legalities of an AI doing that.

“SAM is an enabler and we plan to operate within existing legal boundaries,” he offers.

Until his experiment has a chance to be tested, the entrepreneur sees 21st century society as being ruled by darkly 19th century politics. On a lighter note, he’s hopeful for New Zealand’s newly-installed, 37-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “SAM and Jacinda would likely get on very well as they are both receptive, interested in ideas, and like to engaged with contemporary issues and society,” says Gerritsen.