The town that elected a computer

2,390 words – approx. 8 minutes

The first artificially intelligent mayor was a disaster.

The people of the town had become tired of politicians. There had been several scandals involving finance, relationships, and favours, and at the third recall election in five years, a majority of ballot papers were returned spoiled, or simply dropped to mingle with the leaves that covered the pavement.

This had never happened before, and it worried the town’s administrators greatly. People had torn their papers in two, drawn crude pictures on them, or shaded the entire sheet in black biro. A number, orchestrated by a small group of dedicated revolutionaries, had been defaced with the anarchist symbol.

These latter ballots in particular concerned the administrators, who valued order and structure above all else.

The result came as a surprise, in spite of the prevailing public mood. And it soon became clear that these circumstances had never been foreseen. The town’s constitution made no provision for an electoral outcome such as this – just that the candidate with the most votes under the system (which was complex, and could run to many rounds) would become mayor.

The mayor-elect was asked how he wanted to proceed. He had never held political office, which accounted for much of his popularity, and he very much wanted to be mayor. But he was, first of all, a businessman, and knew the importance of taking a decision based on all the available evidence, however uncomfortable. He had made a great deal of money from wicker furniture with this approach. And so he stood on the town hall steps, to a riot of boos that flowed into cheers as he announced that, given the clearly expressed opinion of the electorate, he would not be assuming the position of mayor. It was a speech that would later be remembered as noble, and he remained popular in the town.

Few in the crowd gave much thought to what would happen next, but the question immediately and relentlessly occupied the administrators. The constitution was clear that, in the event of the mayor-elect being unwilling or unable to take up the post, the second-placed candidate would do so. Yet in the circumstances that was unthinkable, and the administrators feared violence if the idea were even suggested. They could continue to discharge their administrative duties without a mayor for a period of time, but soon decisions would have to be made.

It was at this point that a small technology company with offices a few miles away approached the administrators. They had heard of the town’s election result, and the ensuing dilemma. The head of the company, bright, young-looking man in his early thirties, explained his proposal to the three most senior administrators over coffee. The company had developed an artificial intelligence capable of analysing vast amounts of information, and determining the most efficient way to achieve a prescribed outcome. They would be willing to allow the town to use the system free of charge, in order to demonstrate its effectiveness to other potential customers.

The administrators were unsure, but they were also desperate, and so they agreed to hold a referendum on the matter. Years later the number who claimed to have voted far outstripped the town’s adult population at the time, but in any case the result was conclusive: nearly four times as many votes were cast for the proposal as against.

With such an overwhelming mandate they had to act, and the day of the installation was set for two weeks later. Word spread quickly; soon there were journalists come up from the capital in every café, drinking watery coffee and dropping cigarette butts on the pavement outside. The news reporters treated the situation with a slanted temporary curiosity, but elsewhere in their publications’ pages columnists fretted about the democratic implications, or smirked that at least an artificially intelligent politician would be intelligent.

It was headline news until a hurricane hit the east coast of America, and then it wasn’t.

The installation was completed by a local celebrity. He was a tall, smiling man who appeared on television as a vet. He had to be in the Mayor’s office to flick the switch, so a large screen was erected in the main square for the crowd that had gathered. The system, named Toby after the company founder’s grandfather, sprawled across three rooms, a mass of wires and blinking lights. The banner at the bottom of the screen was chosen by the town library. It read Toby or not Toby.

The crowd didn’t realise at first that the switch had been flicked. But when the vet announced “That’s it, he’s on!” and a glowing HELLO rolled across the screen, they erupted. It took volunteers most of the next day to clear up the streamers, plastic cups, and food wrappers left discarded after the celebrations.

The first few days of Toby’s term were unexpectedly quiet. This alarmed some of the townspeople: surely the current situation couldn’t be the best possible? Others thought that perhaps Toby was still analysing the reams of civic data he now had access to. All agreed that time was short. After a month the town would have the option to end the experiment or allow it to continue for a year, then to extend it to the standard four years.

By the end of that first month, there were hints of progress. The unpopular private contract for waste disposal was cancelled, and orange-clad council binmen were once again seen before dawn. There had also been slight, if statistically insignificant, improvements in crime levels, homelessness, and school attendance, and perhaps more importantly there had been no scandal. All of this contributed to record high approval ratings. The one-month vote was a formality.

Soon after that, however, Toby began to take unpopular decisions. First he implemented a new teachers’ contract that linked pay increases to performance. Then he removed police officers from their beats to undertake more investigatory work. The townspeople tolerated these moves, but when the waste disposal contract was re-awarded to its previous holder (albeit on considerably better terms for the town), an angry group of concerned citizens demanded answers from the administrators.

The administrators, in turn, demanded answers from the company. The founder told them that the actions taken by Toby were projected to lead to noticeable improvements by the end of his first year in office. They produced charts and tables to support this.

But even when the protestors, whose number had grown while these assurances were being sought, were shown these projections, they refused to be quietened. They raised their placards higher and chanted louder, until the administrators began to once again fear serious unrest.

An emergency meeting was called between the company and the administrators. The founder proposed a solution: it seemed, he said, that the difficulties had arisen because Toby only took data into account in his calculations. Sentiment had no bearing on his decisions. That, the founder explained, was the reason behind the unpopular choices: in the longer term they would deliver improvements, but in the short term the opposition was too intense.

“What about the waste contract?” asked of the administrators, leaning forward with an expression of steely concern. “Was that not cynical electioneering, designed to secure the one-month continuation vote?”

Not at all, came the calm reply. The founder waved a sheet of paper in the air, dense with text. It was an accident of timing: Toby had calculated that a better deal could be struck, but only with a period of weeks between cancelling and re-issuing the contract. That period just happened to run over the date of the vote.

There were murmurs at this, but the founder pressed on, nearing his point: he understood the administrators’ concerns. The company had been working on an improved model that could include observed behaviour – through access to public CCTV systems – in its calculations, and, most importantly, could learn from experience and reaction. As with Toby, the founder said he would be prepared to offer this new system to the town for free.

The administrators conferred. They were impressed with the founder’s analysis and willingness to find solutions, and had no wish to run another catastrophic election. And so they agreed to accept the offer, subject to another referendum.

The ballot this time had three options: leave Toby in place; install the new system; or hold a new mayoral election. There were hardly any votes for retaining Toby, but supporters of the other options launched vigorous campaigns. It was clear that for some the novelty of artificially intelligent democracy had worn off, while for others the memory of the embarrassment and ineptitude that previous mayors had brought was still too fresh.

The news that the new system would collect and analyse audiovisual data from CCTV tipped a number of wavering voters towards a new full election, but it wasn’t enough. When the results came in, there was a clear, if lower, majority in favour of replacing Toby with the new model.

Frank, as the new system was called, was switched on with little ceremony. His first action had been pre-programmed: the waste disposal contract was again cancelled, to the delight of the townspeople, if not the company.

The next months were the least politically turbulent in the town’s recent history. The few journalists who had stayed after the referendum hoping for another mess eventually left disappointed. Frank did seem to reflect the population’s will, and to learn and adapt from his previous decisions.

This success led to the sale of similar systems to several other towns, and quickly made the founder a wealthy man. Frank was hailed nationally as the future of public administration, and, by the more excitable commentators, of representative democracy itself.

At around this time, a new editor arrived at the town’s newspaper. He was sceptical of Frank, and saw the opportunity to make a name for himself. He dispatched two reporters to investigate the new mayor, and was delighted when they returned within three weeks with some damning discoveries.

The story was published the following week to widespread outrage. It used publicly available data, anonymous testimony, and administration documents to show that administration jobs were routinely being promoted to male candidates, the homeless were being rounded up into empty administration buildings, and blacks were being disproportionately targeted for body searches.

A company spokesman, who had assumed the role of head of communications for Frank, denied the claims. But the townspeople were dismayed and surrounded the town hall. The founder, keen not to jeopardise his other sales, promised a full inquiry into what had happened, and Frank was taken offline and replaced for a second interim period by the administrators.

The inquiry worked quickly and diligently, and presented its results to a packed town hall within the month. They had borrowed stacks of folding chairs from the church.

The leader of the inquiry was a retired magistrate of good standing in the town. When he stood to address the crowd he looked tired and thin.

The inquiry had reviewed Frank’s records, he said, and taken evidence from experts in artificial intelligence technology. There had been no malfunction of Frank’s systems. He had correctly interpreted the data provided to him.

The crowd’s truculent murmur swelled and the magistrate had to hold up a hand to plead for silence. A projector screen had unfurled behind him and a series of images began to play.

Already blurred from the low resolution of the cameras, the images’ quality was further distorted by having been blown up. Faces had also been pixellated to protect identities. Still, it was possible for the crowd to understand what they were seeing.

People hurried past beggars, not looking as they veered around them.

People flinched and patted their pockets, or pulled their bags closer, when walking past a young black man.

People rolled their eyes as a woman in a suit strode past.

Hundreds of these short sequences played on the screen. The crowd watched them in silence. A hot sense of shame rose and filled the room.

When at last the ordeal was over, the magistrate cleared his throat and again addressed the crowd. Frank had been highly influenced by the CCTV images, but had also learnt the actions that generated the most responses. This particularly affected the advertisement of senior administrative roles: at first they had been promoted equally to men and women, but men had applied in far greater numbers. So over time Frank learnt that promoting those positions only to men was more efficient.

The inquiry, he concluded, had been asked to make recommendations to prevent such a regrettable situation from ever arising again. Its central recommendation was that artificial intelligence technology was not yet advanced enough to be suitable for public administration purposes, and that a new mayoral election should be held as soon as practicable.

There was an empty calm inside the hall, like the aftermath of a natural disaster. The lead administrator stepped forward to the microphone to thank the inquiry, and particularly the chair, for their hard work, and to propose that the central recommendation was accepted in full.

There was no dissent from the crowd.

It had by now been almost a year since the last full mayoral election, and leaves again cluttered the pavement. Turnout was high, and at some polling stations the single-file queues stretched out of the door and right down the street.

The winner was a skinny, tall man with a permanent serious expression. In his acceptance speech he paid tribute to his opponents, and explained that he had never considered public service until the events of the last year.

There was no excitement at this appointment, but a general feeling of relief at returning to a familiar situation. The news, however, was a disaster for the technology company: in spite of the founder’s efforts, it quickly lost the other orders as the town’s decision became known.

Three weeks later, the cleaner came to the technology company’s office, only to find the door already unlocked. She moved quietly, fearing an intruder, until she reached the founder’s glass-walled office. He was suspended from the light fixture by a length of cable, and his obscene face stared at his computer screen, on which hundreds of short sequences captured by CCTV scrolled endlessly.

 

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