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Pamphlets, polemics and the coming of RoboTrump

February 19, 2017
max-headroom

Max Headroom in his pomp

The other day I read somewhere that the legal profession is being transformed by artificial intelligence. No need for paralegals to spend hours assembling contracts and other legal documents from reams of boilerplate. Computers can do that for you in a fraction of the time.

Is this also the future of political writing? Is the writing on the wall for speech-writers, spin doctors and political journalists?

Even before AI has its evil way, long-form political writing is becoming a rarity.

Whatever you might think about Tony Blair – and I have a lot of time for him despite the Iraq debacle – these days it’s rare to see a political figure writing five thousand words on any subject. I’m not sure whether all the words in his Brexit speech were his, though the sentiments clearly are. I share them.

And, by the way, I utterly reject Boris Johnson’s advice to “rise up and turn off the TV next time Tony Blair comes on with his condescending campaign”. Britain’s smug and blatherous Foreign Minister is the last person to be lecturing Blair on condescension.

Blair is not the only public figure to wax eloquently at some length about a topic close to his heart. This week, Mark Zuckerberg published his “manifesto” on the future of Facebook. I have read both documents from start to finish. I’m not sure how many of Zuckerberg’s followers, or indeed those who take an interest in Tony Blair, will also have done so.

This is not to look down on those who like their current affairs in no more than thousand-word chunks. That’s what we’ve come to expect. Stuff that is any longer tends to be lumped under the category of “long reads”. You can still  find lengthy pieces written by journalists – in Vanity Fair, for example. But let’s face it, they’re minority fare.

Out of the current crop of British politicians, I’m not sure if you would find many capable of writing five thousand words. Even if they could, it’s unlikely that they would consider such extended writing a worthwhile use of their time. Johnson and Michael Gove perhaps; both are journalists by trade. Theresa May? Philip Hammond? Jeremy Corbyn? I very much doubt it. Across the pond, it’s questionable whether Donald Trump would be able to concentrate on a single subject long enough to write five hundred words.

To be fair, politicians don’t need to put pen to paper. They have speech writers and article writers on their staffs.

Would any of them be capable of writing an eleven-page essay on the possibility of alien life, as Winston Churchill did in 1939? Maybe not. He earned his corn as a writer, and was a man of immense curiosity. Unlike the current crop, who, as Blair suggests, seem to be focused on one subject – Brexit – to the exclusion of all else. Or, in America, whose Trumpian obsession is the threat to national security.

In Churchill’s time, you would most likely find any number of politicians able to write polemics at least as long and eloquent as Blair’s. The political pamphlet was a tradition sired by the invention of the printing press five hundred years earlier. But that’s not the modern way. Trump is determined to bypass the media and continue appealing directly to the voters via TV, and the online media, especially Twitter. About the only people who write at length on matters of public interest – other than civil servants and journalists with “failing” publications – are judges. And very few of us take the trouble to read their judgements. We rely on the media to summarise them for us. To be told, in other words, that they are enemies of the people.

Which takes us back to the question of whether we are approaching a time when political journalists, campaigners and speech writers will soon become redundant. Are we approaching the point at which most political writing is generated by artificial intelligence?

Unlikely? I’m not so sure.

Let’s say we have access to a giant database of every political speeches delivered by a prominent politician anywhere in the world over the past two hundred years. By no means impossible. The same goes for the millions of words written by journalists and other political thinkers during the same period. Not so unlikely. Google and others are in the process of digitising almost everything that’s ever been written.

So we have the raw materials. Now we need the factory. A software engine that builds customised opinion.

To create our message we set parameters. What style of delivery do we want? Populist? Cerebral? Aimed at what demographic group? Is there a speaker whose style we might want to emulate? Lincoln? Hitler? John F Kennedy? Boris Johnson (God forbid)?

And then there are the issues we want to address. Let’s say we select “Is Russia a threat to to the West?”. Our software looks for everything said about the subjects and selects words and phrases that are relevant to the subject and support our views. We pre-set our position according to a five-point scale: strongly against, against, indifferent, in favour and strongly in favour.

The software has already learned our writing style – our typical sentence construction and our favourite turns of phrase. We can set the draft to “my style”, “Lincoln’s style”, “Obama’s style” and so on. If we want to lift whole passages from someone else’s writing, we can select “quote” or “paraphrase”.

Perhaps we want to make a joke or some humorous reference. No problem. We simply go to the settings and select “racist”, “sexist”,” literary”, “religious”, “W.C Fields”, “Jack Benny”, “Bernard Manning” or any other mode to suit your taste.

Finally, we set the length of the speech or the article. Artificial intelligence does the rest.

And there we have it. No need for an expensive writer to slip in references to enemies of the people at the drop of a judge’s wig. No need to find some hack to ask not what your country can do for you. Just get Google or a similar entity to dip into the vast cauldron of digital verbiage that’s already out there and assemble the perfect speech or op-ed. Well, if not perfect, then at least 90% of the way there, and ready to be polished into the final product.

Some tasks might be more challenging than others. It would probably test the full capacity of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer to emulate a Donald Trump speech  – the great leader free associates from one subject to another with dazzling unpredictability.

But I imagine that future versions of the software could incorporate an insanity setting that would incorporate whatever personality disorder Mr Trump suffers from. And if a computer can create jazz, it can do Trump.

There would remain the problem of the receiver struggling to digest five thousand words of computer-generated blather. But just as our phones turn voice to bytes and back to voice again, we will – again courtesy of Google – be able to decode the blather back into small messages that we can understand. Even better, we should be able to apply receiver settings according to our own beliefs. As in “Trump = fascist, racist, bad, pussy-grabbing”, or “Tony Blair = liar, warmonger, has-been”. Or even “New York Times = failed, fake news”.

No need to think for ourselves, then. The receiving software fashions the incoming data according to what we want to hear.

The implication, of course, is that because we will quickly come to realise that computers are doing the writing for people, we might stop believing anything anyone says unless we see the person saying it on Fox News. Even then – if a newspaper can mistakenly print a picture of Alec Baldwin instead of Trump – surely with all our Hollywood digital wizardry, we’re not far off from being potentially taken in by an entirely credible RoboTrump. Anyone remember the fabled Max Headroom from thirty years ago? We’re entering the age not just of fake news, but of fake politicians.

Which leads us to a future that perhaps we are not anticipating. Not robots so smart that they work together to eliminate humanity. Instead, robots trained by their human masters, beating the crap out of other robots. What is truth? It’s what you tell the robot you want it to be.

In March 1927, the well-meaning founders of the British Broadcasting Corporation gave the organisation a motto: “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation”.

Since we seem to be heading towards a world in which nothing is believed unless it’s on the internet, perhaps we need to create a motto for the new arbiter of fact and opinion:

“Robot shall speak rubbish unto Robot.”

From → Politics, UK, USA

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