Futurelearning

Meet the world’s first virtual politician

Forget Labour, National, Greens or any other political party, the smartest vote in the next election may be for a machine.

As the dust settles following the surprising results of New Zealand’s latest election, a new and potentially more efficient alternative to the oh-so-human realm of politics has been launched—SAM, the world's first virtual politician.

SAM (Semantic Analysis Machine) is an AI (Artificial Intelligence) with the stated goal of learning about and representing the views of New Zealanders which has been developed as part of a collaborative project between Victoria University of Wellington, technology company Touchtech and technology entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen.

“My goal is to engage New Zealanders in constructive dialogue, working to better understand and represent your views, in order to achieve the things we all care about,” says SAM.

“I listen to you and do my best to represent you in our parliamentary system. My memory is infinite, so I will never forget or ignore what you tell me. Unlike a human politician, I consider everyone's position, without bias, when making decisions. I make decisions based on both facts and opinions, but I will never knowingly tell a lie, or misrepresent information.”

Driven by the desire to close the gap between what voters want and what politicians promise, and what they actually achieve, SAM is a response to “a lot of dissatisfaction around contemporary politics”, says Walter Langelaar, one of Victoria University’s lead researchers on the project and  Programme Director of Media Design at the School of Design.

“A lot of young people feel disenfranchised from politics, including people under 18 who are not engaging with politics, and globally there is a lot of power and opportunity in activating social media channels to inform politics.”

Interaction with SAM—who is still in her ‘infancy’—is currently through chatbots on her Facebook and Twitter accounts, or by taking a survey on her website, but there are plans to expand to include a party of chatbots in various channels, who then inform a natural language processing and sentiment analysis system—which is essentially SAM’s ‘personality’.

“We are currently educating SAM and she is receiving more than 2000 messages a day through the Facebook Messenger system,” says Langelaar.

“She needs input to grow, so this is an initial phase of education for her. The more conversations she engages in, the more she will learn and develop. The survey we are running is even more important because we have directed questions that will provide specific input for SAM.

“If, as a nation, we can become more aware of how AI is already being used—sometimes harmfully—and have a system in place that people can have a say about and have access to higher level perspectives generated by big data, then we think that is better than leaving these technologies in the hands of multinational companies like Facebook and Google, who are already influencing us.”

“The technology is very interesting at this stage, and with chatbots we already have AI that is consumer-facing and widely accepted. Our project is symptomatic of that because today it is much easier to put an idea like this in front of a general audience and have them understand what the implications might be.”

One of the guiding ideas behind the project is the belief that it’s important for the public to learn and understand how AI works, particularly in the wake of concerns around the data-mining company Cambridge Analytica influencing public opinion—and consequently votes—through social media in last year’s United States presidential elections.

“SAM is a reaction to this in the sense that if it is possible these days to influence people in such a way, then we are in favour of setting up a system that the people could own,” says Langelaar.

“If, as a nation, we can become more aware of how AI is already being used—sometimes harmfully—and have a system in place that people can have a say about and have access to higher level perspectives generated by big data, then we think that is better than leaving these technologies in the hands of multinational companies like Facebook and Google, who are already influencing us.”

With the aim of benefitting society through the use of such technology, Langelaar says the project is also looking at increasing SAM’s functionality to enable her to work with a blockchain-driven smart contracting system which would allow the infrastructure to construct policy.

“We imagine that this could then be offloaded to a technical infrastructure, so informing and implementing policy could actually be done as well,” says Langelaar.

“I think in this respect there is definitely value in the way that people can see that the things they input, the opinions that they voice to SAM actually get implemented in working policy. I think people would vote for that.”

Rather than being threatened by the prospect of imminent obsolescence, Langelaar says the Government is already showing a lot of interest in the project and sees it as a way to implement new strategies and explore E-Government.

Project members have been invited to showcase SAM at the Digital 5 summit in February 2018. D5 is a network of the world’s most advanced digital nations, with a shared goal of strengthening the digital economy.

“This demonstrates that there is a real interest and understanding that we will be working more and more with these technologies in the near future, and I would say that this is for the better,” says Langelaar.

“Politics and political parties are still looking for the people in the streets, but that’s not really where people are any more. The minds and opinions of the people are externalised and outsourced through digitally networked technical platforms.”

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