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HoloTrump and the future of elections

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionReplicating the message - politicians may one day be in several places at once

Imagine this. It's 2 November 2020. A confident Donald Trump is in the final stages of campaigning for re-election.

It's the day before the country heads to the polls, and Trump is courting the vote in no fewer than 20 states.

He's everywhere, frankly. It's The Donald, multiplied.

Using holograms, he's able to speak everywhere at once.

But Kanye West has other ideas.

Keeping, as we all knew he would, to his 2016 promise to run for office, the rapper hasn't bothered to leave the house. Instead, a fleet of drones is swarming across the country, dropping "Yes we Kanye!" to confused, slightly scared voters below.

Watching all this is Mark Zuckerberg. He's working on PresiBot - an artificial intelligence being which, my time-travelling sources have assured me, rises to glorious power in 2032. Like?

Forty-foot coffin

"Why not?" offers Zoltan Istvan, an US independent presidential candidate who identifies as a futurist and transhumanist.

"Many other jobs are being replaced by robots. Why not our leaders?

"We're about 10-15 years from having a machine that's as smart as anyone in this room. It might make sense at some point to have a machine lead us."

image copyrightZoltan Istvan
image captionIstvan's campaign bus is a 40-foot coffin

I met Istvan this week at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, a gathering of companies working on augmented, virtual and mixed reality technology.

He certainly stood out. First, he's built like an action figure. Second, he wants to live forever (that's the transhumanist part). His presidential campaign is built around calls to fund further science that will - the movement hopes - one day make immortality a reality.

He, of course, is not going to become the next president. But that's not the point. His campaign is designed to bring attention to his call for the US to put more money into research. This publicity drive is enhanced by his campaign bus - a 40-foot-long coffin on wheels.

His talk was looking at the future of politics. Specifically, how technology could change the ways in which candidates get the word out.

Some of them - such as a chip implanted in the brain to receive election news telepathically - were one vote short of a picnic.

But I spoke with him about some of the more realistic ones.

"You can expect elections to change a lot," he told me.

"There's going to be drones delivering bumper stickers. There's going to be robots campaigning for candidates.

"You'll have a self-driving campaign bus show up in your city. The candidate won't be there - but you'll still see the campaign message."

Campaign dinosaurs

Those suggestions aren't beyond the realms of technological possibility. Just recently, we've heard about Otto, a self-driving truck firm looking to send vehicles all over the US carrying cargo - so why not have the same for electioneering?

Holograms - or other technology that achieves a similar effect - are already a reality. If Michael Jackson can perform beyond the grave, then it's surely less ambitious to have campaign speeches happening with the same technology.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSending a hologram or robot to a campaign rally may be a misstep

I suggested it might be a political misstep.

"If you choose to send your robot or hologram instead of yourself, yeah that's going to upset people," Istvan agreed.

"But at the same time, a presidential campaign is really about advertising. The more you can do the better you can succeed. What you need to do is have a really good social media presence and different types of technology that allow you to get your message out there.

"Technology will change the elections in the future, not personal campaigning. That's going the way of the dinosaurs."

Computer says "WAR!"

I recently watched the terrific film Moneyball, in which the Brad Pitt-led Oakland Athletics baseball team smashed records by trusting an algorithm over human judgement.

Stats are huge in sport, particularly among Americans who love rattling off statistics as proof of their in-depth knowledge of a team.

In politics, we're starting to see similar appreciation. Nate Silver hit headlines during the last election by correctly predicting the result in every state but one by analysing the numbers.

Istvan takes this further. If, as many experts confidently predict, a computer that's more intelligent than a human is on the way - why not put it in charge?

It's a vision that's about as "out there" as they come. But boiled down, you begin to see Istvan's point. What has a government got other than data? Data on unemployment, the economy, education, housing. Is selective data free of bias? No - but arguably more so than any human could ever hope to be.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionData changed baseball dramatically - the same could happen in politics

"It could run a country completely altruistically, without selfishness," Istvan said. "A machine that's out there for the best of the American people."

Where would this computer come from? It perhaps already exists.

On stage at Google's I/O developer conference just over a week ago, Google's boss Sundar Pichai ended his talk discussing how its AlphaGo robot had shown signs of "creativity" in beating its world-leading human opponent in a game of Go.

The computer pulled off a move experts in the game described as "beautiful", one beyond the ability of a human.

There's a big leap from board game to White House.

But when artificial intelligence like IBM's Watson and Amazon's Alexa can offer instant analysis and decision making based on facts, rather than imprecise and biased human gut instinct, Istvan said it would get to the point when the computer is demonstrably the best candidate… "as long as it doesn't become the Terminator."

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