A Wellington-based technology group has unveiled a pilot digital platform: ‘SAM – the Virtual Politician’ at the launch of the Wellington CIT.AI chapter, part of a global network of cities showcasing their artificial intelligence (AI) capability and talent.
The group’s spokesperson Nick Gerritsen, said the group aimed to test whether the ways in which people engage with politics and debate the big issues could be improved.
“We’re asking whether an AI politician could provide the facts rather than push a party line,” he said. “We believe it’s time to consider whether technology, and in this case AI, can help us get better information to inform decision-making on the major issues like water quality, housing, or climate change. We need better outcomes.”
Gerritsen said the current political system was reliant on politicians staying on top of all the major issues, being well-informed and coming up with good decisions. “We’ve seen in the US, UK, and Spain recently, however, 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.”
According to Gerritsen, the technology proposed would be better than traditional polling because it would be akin to having a continuous conversation, and could give the ‘silent majority’ a voice.
“Natural language processing technology and sentiment analysis algorithms have come a long way in recent times and are now at the level where they have practical application in day-to-day interactions with people,” Gerritsen said.
Initially, the project will conduct research into whether people would engage with a virtual politician and then move on to the viability of building the software. If it proves to be viable the aim would be to have the virtual politician up and running for the next general election.
Gerritsen said the group wanted to have a positive impact on political discussion and democracy and did not have a political agenda or bias as such.
“We might be surprised at the outcome. And that might be a good thing if it’s more in tune with the voting public. The technology will enable greater people power,” he said.
Victoria University’s Walter Langelaar will conduct the research phase. He said some of the work the university’s Media Design department was doing around machine learning and AI would inform the project and its contextualisation.
“Understanding that machine-learning algorithms can conduct, shape and steer conversations is relevant both from a perspective on future interaction design applications as well as through analysing the socio-political impact of these tools,” Langelaar said.
Wellington company Touch Tech will develop the platform and the company’s CEO Andrew Smith said funding would be raised to assist in the development of SAM.
Gerritsen added, “But she exists now in a very basic form and we look forward to creating the platform for her to learn and demonstrate her intelligence.”
He said SAM would need the input of ordinary New Zealanders to guide her development. “Every question asked or comment made is an opportunity for SAM to learn, even if she doesn’t yet know the answer.”
He called on New Zealanders to help SAM learn and grow by visiting her website and completing its demographic survey, or talking to SAM directly on Facebook.