There are two developments whose simultaneous emergence could create huge problems for, not to mention doubts about, the honesty and integrity of future presidential campaigns — and even presidencies: President Biden’s age and health and the explosion of artificial intelligence (AI).
Let’s start with Biden’s age and health. He’s 80 years old and will be 82 just weeks after the next presidential election. While the mainstream media soft-peddle his health challenges, voters recognize it could be a problem.
A February Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll found 66 percent of independent voters were concerned about Biden’s mental fitness, and 71 percent said he “was showing he was too old to be president.”
Julian Epstein, a former Democratic chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee and staff director to the House Oversight Committee, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last March, “The president seems frequently confused on stage, unable to identify public officials and even calling on a deceased official. None of us can imagine him surviving a press grilling without countless mistakes.”
Yes, and that concern takes us to the second development.
AI is increasingly able to create audio and video that can fool people. To test the point, Wall Street Journal columnist Joanna Stern cloned herself with AI. She tested her clone, and it fooled both her bank and her family. The column’s subhead claims, “The results were eerie.” (You can watch it on YouTube video here.)
Stern used tech companies to create the video and voice, and then had other companies refine and improve the creation. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. And tech companies are constantly improving the outcomes.
So, what does that have to do with the Biden presidential campaign?
In his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden spent a lot of time in his basement. As Reuters recalled last week, “Biden did much of his campaigning virtually from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, largely avoiding crowds to prevent the spread of disease and reduce his own risk of catching the virus.”
Or at least that was the excuse. President Trump continued to campaign in person.
Conservatives are suggesting that Biden, given his age and health, may run a second basement campaign. If he finds he’s just not up to the travel and public speaking demands of a presidential campaign, he may simply release more short videos, as he did in announcing his reelection bid.
Do we know for certain such videos will be him and not a clone? Would it be disclosed?
Bloomberg writes that AI chatbots are being used to create dozens of news content websites. None of those websites disclose they are chatbots. Should we expect a political campaign to be more transparent than a news website?
My guess is Biden will personally do as much as he can. But if he’s struggling to speak coherently and on message (as Epstein warns), would Biden’s tech experts smooth out the bumps by adding some AI-generated video and voice?
There’s a difference between using AI to enhance or to mask. If AI were used to mask a candidate’s health problems, that should be a big red flag. And voters need to know.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a president’s health problems were concealed. President Woodrow Wilson experienced a stoke that kept him from fulfilling his duties. It wasn’t until months later that the public learned about it. That’s because Wilson’s wife, Edith, stepped in and covered for him, even though she always denied it.
As Dr. Howard Markel wrote for PBS, “She was, essentially, the nation’s chief executive until her husband’s second term concluded in March of 1921.”
Technology is making it possible for a presidential candidate, or any candidate, who is temporarily incapacitated to appear to be fulling his or her duties — at least for a while. In addition, AI can clean up videos of prerecorded presentations that were marred by misstatements, slurred or fumbled pronunciations or confusion, in essence hiding health challenges from the voters.
But here’s another problem. Even if Biden, or any other candidate (for example, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)), never turns to AI enhancements, that the technology exists and is improving will make many people suspicious of video or audio releases, especially if something about them seems amiss.
Remember how some raised suspicions when they thought they saw a bulge on President George W. Bush’s back when he was debating Democrat John Kerry in 2004?
The technology is there, and political candidates will surely use it, either now or in the future. While it sounds a bit farfetched, voters could ultimately be voting for the clone they see in ads, rather than the candidate they don’t see.