Artificial intelligence has without question been a menace to modern democratic society. Malicious bots interfered in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and meddled in Mexican elections held earlier this week.
Perhaps even more alarming is a study published last month that found that the majority of people in democratic societies around the world do not believe their voices are heard. Modern systems of government have been challenged in recent years both by disillusionment in institutions and foreign adversaries deploying malicious forms of AI.
Something has to give, and while AI is often painted as the villain automating away everyone’s jobs, it’s just a tool, and one that can be used in powerful ways to improve lives. Here are four ideas or initiatives that use AI to better democracy.
Earlier this year when the deepfakes subreddit and technique to put one person’s face onto another person’s body with AI became the subject of mainstream news coverage, it didn’t take much to realize the logical conclusions of such technology.
The scenario in which people are put in videos against their will and shown performing sexual acts is low-hanging fruit considering what happened to celebrity actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Gal Gadot. It was — and still is — shocking how easy it can be to find these porn videos online, but what happens if a deepfake with the president of the United States gets widely circulated online? Many people will understand it’s fake, but if we can’t figure out how to avoid being duped by fake news of the written word, what happens when it’s mimicking human speech and facial gestures?
Since then, startups and government agencies have mounted AI initiatives to stop deepfakes AI.
Truepic, a startup working with Reddit to identify manipulated media, recently closed an $8 million funding round and will begin to explore ways it can identify deepfakes. Also last month, researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) announced they have made a computer vision model to monitor the way people blink in deepfake videos.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding a contest this summer for top forensics experts to establish ways to identify deepfakes.
The U.S. elections in November will more than likely be a testing ground for additional meddling in the electoral process by foreign adversaries. This could include deepfakes, and I hope we’re ready to suspend our belief in what’s real, because as comedian Jordan Peele says using Barack Obama’s face below, “It may sound basic, but how we move forward in this age of information is going to determine whether we survive or whether we become some kind of fucked up dystopia.”
Stanford professor Dan Jurafsky, part of the college’s Computer Science school and NLP Group, teamed up with psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt to use natural language processing to scan the transcripts of 100 hours of conversations between police and members of the community at traffic stops. In results shared last month, Jurafsky found that police consistently speak with black drivers with a less than respectful tone compared to white drivers.
Their work is some of the first in body camera footage analysis, and they plan to continue to refine their model to determine the tenor of conversations police have with members of the community. These devices were initially installed by many police departments as a set of eyes and ears for evidence in shootings, particularly the shooting of unarmed black men.
But analysis of the resulting footage in other less high-profile circumstances could bear insightful fruit that helps law enforcement agencies better understand instances when a change in language could lead to better outcomes.
How we speak to one another matters because it can impact outcomes. For clear reasons, it’s in the interest of the state to maintain healthy police-community relations. Whatever constructive criticism such work can have on community relations seems like a positive step.
Alexa skills for essential city services
Last year we highlighted an Alexa skill for the city of Los Angeles, which was made to tell residents about library opening hours, local government news, and the latest actions taken by City Council. The goal, a city official told VentureBeat, is for smart speakers to be able to automate non-emergency city services.
Today, Alexa skills and Google Assistant actions made by municipal governments can tell you things like garbage pickup days or local pool hours, but governments should continue to strive for more ambitious voice apps.
Yes, it’s the technology of the future. Virtual assistant use is on the rise and the majority of U.S. households are expected to have a smart speaker in less than five years, but it’s also one of the simplest forms of computing available. Part of the appeal of conversational AI is that you don’t have to be trained to use it, you don’t even need to know how to read or write, you just open your mouth and speak.
If more city governments embrace voice app platforms as a way to reach a growing number of citizens, it might just change attitudes about government for the better.
What would be even better is if Amazon made some commonly known way to say things like “Alexa, ask the city…” so requests are as simple for city residents as possible.
The speakers and assistants entering homes, cars, and the workplace could begin to become an interface for local institutions, yes for crucial city services like animal control and garbage disposal, but also to cut through the bureaucracy to help people get things done in an easy way and to give citizens a way to share their opinions.
Similar to initiatives at Northeastern University where every freshmen now gets an Echo Dot to inform students of essential information, if a similar approach was undertaken by cities, it could greatly change the way people feel about their government, reduce frustration with bureaucracy, and perhaps even make governments more responsive to citizens.
Direct democracy may have seemed nearly impossible in the past for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that people don’t have much free time to vote frequently or the technical prowess necessary to vote on every single piece of legislation that elected officials consider in a representative democracy.
MIT Media Lab’s Cesar Hidalgo suggests countries could use predictive algorithms to learn your patterns of behavior and vote on your behalf on legislation in a direct democracy.
This approach to democracy definitely removes the illusion that a person — politician or not — will vote based on merits presented at the time rather than how they voted in the past, but it could also potentially ensure government is responsive to the needs of the electorate.
I can’t imagine this will seriously be considered by many politicians in the future, but it does open the door in the mind to the idea of individuals using AI to explore their legislative options or the idea of a virtual assistant to help people vote.
If the AI tells you why it made decisions, it’s not tough to imagine an assistant akin to Project Debater, an experimental AI made to argue with humans in debate debuted last month, could combat fake news and argue for and against particular forms of legislation.