Computer researchers have created programs that can do the job quite nicely, explains Brian Fung
Brian Fung

The Washington Post
27 Jan 2016 - 10:09 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2016 - 5:05 PM

Spend enough time watching politicians talk, and pretty soon you'll have a good idea of how to address the public like a seasoned elected official. No matter the topic, US leaders invariably find a way to tie things back to members of the hard-working middle-class who just want a fair shot at the American dream, perhaps with a side of help for small business.

Lawmakers today might be able to give this kind of political speech in their sleep. But with the way technology is going, they might as well have a robot write it for them.

"Mr. Speaker, supporting this rule and supporting this bill is good for small business. It is great for American small business, for Main Street, for jobs creation. We have an economy that has created nearly 2 million jobs in the past couple of months: apparel, textiles, transportation and equipment, electronic components and equipment, chemicals, industrial and commercial equipment and computers, instruments, photographic equipment, metals, food, wood and wood products. Virtually every state in the union can claim at least one of these industrial sectors. In fact, one young girl, Lucy, wanted to make sure that the economy keeps growing. That should not be done on borrowed money, on borrowed time."

A computer wrote that speech.

Drawing from roughly 3,800 speeches that were actually delivered on the House floor, University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers used a sophisticated prediction algorithm that could accurately guess what words to lay down next to each other given the presence of other words. In this case, the software was programmed to analyse the last five words of a sentence in order to figure out what the sixth one should be.

"In fact, one young girl, Lucy, wanted to make sure that the economy keeps growing"

The results are sometimes hilarious. One computer-generated address began with words traditionally used at the end of a speech - "Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time" - but then it blabbed on for 343 more words, commending Congress for having done something unintelligible about health care. Another goes like this:

"For example, I mean probably all of us have had a mom or a grandmom or an uncle to whom we say, hey, I noticed your legs are swelling again. Fluid retention. Fluid retention."

I cannot recall the last time I repeated the words "fluid retention" in polite company.

Despite its hit-or-miss nature, it's clear that artificial intelligence can pretty easily whip up, if not a full-on State of the Union address, at least some placeholder text that a politician could massage later into a serviceable diatribe against job-killing regulations or climate science deniers, or whatever the shifting political winds were calling for that day.

Maybe when all political grandstanding has been replaced by computers firing talking points at each other, that'll free up our elected officials to - you know - govern.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.


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