How Tech Could Rescue the Awful Democratic Debates

Debates Like many of you, I watched eight-plus hours of Democratic debates last week, and they seem to be getting worse over time. The last effort made it look like CNN was trying harder to create drama than to help people make a choice among the candidates.

Debates

We have a ton of technology — some new, some in place for decades — that could make this process far more informative and help people to make a decision that’s right for them. It also might get people excited about the election, so they actually would vote.

I’ll offer some ideas, as I did after the first round, on how we could use technology to make the debates more meaningful and improve the quality of our choices (we really need to improve the quality of our choices). I’ll close with my product of the week: an interesting new smart tablet from Lenovo that thinks it’s an Echo Show and arguably is a better value.

The Problem

The Democrats fielded a buttload of candidates who largely seem to be clones. This makes choosing among them difficult. Were it our job to make the choice (which it is), the debates so far haven’t helped much.

The No. 1 thing that the Democrats want (and I expect not an insignificant number of independents and even moderate Republicans) is a replacement for Donald Trump. I mean, if the Democrats lose, it really doesn’t matter what their candidate intended to do — it won’t get done.

Now that should make it pretty simple: Run largely on a platform of removing Trump from office, fixing what is perceived as broken, and not breaking stuff that isn’t. Instead, the Democratic candidates seem to be focused on issues that will polarize the voters and have many thinking that the president is the better of two bad choices.

For instance, once again on healthcare (this was the problem with Obamacare), they are focusing on getting the government to pay for it rather than focusing on the real problem — the excessive costs. We are the source of government funding, so just shifting the payee doesn’t fix the real problem, given the money comes from us regardless.

There is also the issue of reparations, which would take money from folks who did no wrong and give it to folks who weren’t harmed directly, and no one is talking about amounts. Rough calculations suggest that at US$500 million, it would only give between $10 and $20 per person (around 40 million black people in the U.S. = $12.50 per person at $500 million).

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It would cost less than that per taxpayer (some of whom would be the people getting the money; a tax exclusively on white people would be, well, racist). The tax per person would be around $6.25 (assuming 80 million taxpayers) netting those who got the reparations around $6.25 each. Don’t spend it all at once… . That assumes the collection and distribution of the money would be free, which it wouldn’t be.

Yet if that money, all $500 million, were to go toward fixing education or reducing racial bias in the legal system or promoting more diversity in politics (note I’m saying “or” not “and,” so it isn’t diluted so much it can’t make a difference) the impact would be far more meaningful. Without detailing what people will get, or what people will pay, any proposal is likely to create more conflict between the races (not enough paid out, too much paid in).

The candidates seem to have no idea that all the “Day One” stuff is B.S. For the first several weeks they’ll be learning the job. Getting anything done, other than being sworn in, is unlikely, given how that first day goes.

In reality, folks don’t care whether something is done on Day One or Day 300, as long as it gets done. Much of what is being promised won’t get done at all, let alone on the first day. (The history of presidents keeping promises suggests most were just blowing hot air during their campaigns.)

Given the platforms, it really looks to me like the Democrats are trying to lose — but be that as it may, here is how we could apply technology to help improve the process.

A BS Meter Application

It wouldn’t be hard for a news service to create a B.S. meter. Using machine learning and working off campaign promises and the cumulative coverage of the candidates, an outlet could put up a running B.S. meter, much like The Washington Post‘s Pinocchio score (and it would be useful both for the primaries and the general election).

The system wouldn’t be limited to showcasing whether what was said was true. It also could gauge whether promises made were achievable by probability. For instance, a lot of candidates made promises that Congress, which is dysfunctional and has been the bane of both parties’ presidents, would have to enact — and likely wouldn’t.

The nice thing about a machine learning or deep learning artificial intelligence would be that it would learn over time, and that also would force the candidates to be more honest and realistic. I don’t know about you, but I’m a tad tired of politicians who seem to get into office due to their ability to lie to us. Or, put another way, this could help change “honest politician” into something that isn’t an oxymoron.

Virtual Debates

A few years back IBM demonstrated its Watson AI verbally debating a professional debater. While the system lost, it performed incredibly well. Most interesting was that the system was more entertaining than the human and arguably more accurate.

You could get that same system to emulate Trump and you could have a virtual debate between each of the prospective candidates and the virtual president. The result would provide a far better idea of which candidate could best counter Trump’s unique style of manipulated facts and ad hominem attacks.

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This also could help offset the perception problem with minority and woman candidates. Voters have locked into their heads what a president should look like, and that clearly is an old white guy. If done right, this approach could help broaden that perception to include a woman of color who, on paper, might be the strongest natural foil for President Trump. It would focus on performance first, however, better ensuring the intended outcome.

I’m actually surprised this isn’t being done for debate preparation — even if it weren’t broadcast, the training would be invaluable.

Completed Thoughts

One of the real problems with the last debate was that the format was too tight, and candidates often were unable to complete a thought. Now the post-debate coverage could deal with that, but after five hours of the debate (with commercials), I’m not sure how many people would be hanging in. However, with the addition of active links, people could go and read what the candidate wasn’t allowed to finish saying.

In addition, candidates could record complete answers after the fact, and much like an extended movie with added footage, there could be a post-debate experience that would give viewers more information on issues that concerned them. The 15-second rule was insane, in that it had no real connection to reality. One would need a ton of specialized training to be able to articulate complex thoughts consistently in 15 seconds.

An AI application could do it in real time, though, and if the AI could feed a display on the podium, the candidate then could pass on learning the 15-second skill and leave it to the AI, which could perform better. This also would be a great example of how to use AIs to help humans advance the technology, which is in an area the U.S. currently dominates (China is coming on fast though).

Instrument the Audience

One of the things I’m surprised hasn’t happened yet is the creation of an app that would allow the audience to provide feedback on what they are seeing. The surveys on how people will vote aren’t reliable, given there is just too much time between now and the election. However, it would be possible to monitor how perceptions were changing and report that in real time.

That way candidates could better hone their messaging. With results pooled by interests, people could see how their like-minded peers were trending, which might help them realize a candidate they liked actually wasn’t right for them, and help them identify a candidate who would be better on merit, rather than on sex or race.

Aggregated Impact

One thing the current-generation system can do is take and parse a lot of information quickly and provide voters with an individual context at scale. What I mean is that a properly trained AI could consider your personal information and provide a ranking of the candidates based on which one proposed the path most favorable to you personally, based on your interests and investments. It also could adjust that for the likelihood of execution.

So, you’d get a ranking not only of who was listening more, but also of who was likely to accomplish more. For instance, both Sanders and Warren have similar aggressive policy proposals, but Warren is better integrated into the party and thus more likely to get done what she promises. That’s an important distinction that likely is lost on most.

Once again, this would provide a strong counterpoint to voting based on physical appearance and likability to voting based on merit and ability to accomplish the tasks you, as a voter, want done. This would be useful for more than debates. It could be a website that voters could check periodically. It could go beyond the election, showing a running tab of how well the then-president was living up to promises made.

Wrapping Up

It continues to amaze me that while we are the world technology leader, we don’t use technology better to ensure a well-run government. The last guy we elected was a reality-TV star. He doesn’t like to read and arguably has created far more problems than he has fixed. That means the process is broken, and if we don’t fix the process our happy future is anything but certain.

Technology, particularly artificial intelligence, is incredibly good at helping people make difficult decisions at scale. We need to apply it to the political process, so we are better able to pick candidates who don’t just tell us what we want to hear but make actual progress. Without technology, that appears to be a bridge too far.