V-Squared Data Strategy Consulting

All I could think about during the debate was, ‘This will look so different in 2020.’ For me, the debate was framed by a talk I gave last week about where machine learning goes next.  The internet of things (IoT) will be the data source. Real time processing will be the facilitator. Machine learning driven automation will be the engine. I spent most of the debate thinking about how cognitive systems with those three underpinnings would completely change the event. Looking at the technologies more broadly, there are potential impacts to our society well beyond just the debate.

The first, and I think most significant, impact on the debate will be real time text analytics. As both candidates hurled the “liar” label around, I realized in 4 years we’ll have software that can figure out which assertions are factual in near real time. Turning speech to text for processing is a technology that’s widely available. Text mining can turn each candidate’s responses into a set of facts to be checked against trusted data sources. Extending that out, we can also check the relevance of a candidate’s answer to the initial question. Using machine learning to handle the automated fact checking and real time processing of the candidates’ responses, this is well within our capabilities.

That brings up two interesting stats that can be added to the end of each answer: the percentage of the response that was factual and the percentage of the response that was relevant to the initial question asked. How would having each of those stats change your view of each candidate? That level of transparency will reduce the effectiveness of two key tactics politicians have relied on since the beginning of time, disputing the facts and pivoting. There are other stats which could be displayed, making the debates a more analytical process.

Where is the IoT component in all this? The “thing” in this case is the microphone. It brings up an important point about the IoT which is the things don’t have to be new. Existing devices, when connected to a computer/cloud/internet, can capture data just as well as the latest Fitbit or any other wearable.

Now let’s change the device from the microphone to the video cameras. They create just as much data for analysis. Micro expressions are tiny motions we make in our faces. It’s a complicated science that’s often hijacked by pseudo-science but it has been researched and shown effective in predicting emotional responses. Are the candidates comfortable answering a question or uncomfortable? Is the candidate’s demeanor positive or negative? With these types of measures, we also need to introduce the audience’s level of trust into the equation. Will these measures be trusted by viewers? Will each news channel have their own algorithms or will a uniform algorithm be agreed upon in advance by both parties?

Let’s think about audience feedback. Real time feedback to debates is a product of social media. That’s one of the many goldmines of data on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Add the ability to process that feedback into actionable insights and you give each candidate a powerful tool. Both candidates this year are targeting undecided voters and the so called swing state voters. Knowing what each target segment thinks about their responses in near real time would be a benefit to shaping subsequent responses. This level of personalization isn’t being used now. Responses are often shaped by focus groups and polling. Real time feedback at scale adds another dimension to the data available and expands the reach of analytics beyond small samples across generalized demographics.

What if one candidate had the capability for real time feedback while the other didn’t? Barak Obama’s election runs benefited from the use of analytics that the Republicans had yet to adopt. Again, advancing technology has further implications that would impact an election’s outcome. Would technology become a barrier to entry and significant advantage like campaign cost is today? Businesses are grappling with these concerns now but they’re just as applicable to our democracy in the near future.

It’s possible both major parties will ignore the technology or object to its use by those broadcasting the debates. While I think that’s a probable initial response, I don’t believe it’ll be a viable option by 2020. The reason being, someone will use this technology be it a major network, a streaming video provider, or even a third party like WikiLeaks, Anonymous, or another country’s government. A head in the sand reaction to disruption has never succeeded because there is always someone capable and willing to profit from the opportunity presented by new technology.

While the technology is real, the scenarios are pure conjecture on my part. What will actually happen is hard to say. My purpose is to get more people thinking about election 2020 while the spotlight is still hot. Our government’s policies aren’t evolving as quickly as technology is. That’s been true for almost a decade, arguably longer. Our public discourse isn’t expanding to keep pace either. Both present a problem in the very near future.

Those with the technology will have the ability to influence policy and public perception without us having any say in it. What if Twitter or Facebook refuse access to their data streams to one party but not the other? What if they allow access to all but at a price so steep, it becomes prohibitive to third party candidates? Can we really compel a business to provide equal access to proprietary data? Can we prevent a news outlet from publishing the results of a biased predictive algorithm or force transparency into the workings of their methodology? This and a hundred other what if scenarios will be reality in the next four years. We’re fortunate, right now, to be in a position that affords us time to prepare.

The general population is also going to be at a disadvantage in trying to wade through all the complexity surrounding these new technologies. For the public to have an informed perspective on how these technologies should be used and what to trust, they need a basic understanding of how they work. There the challenge is the same as it’s always been in a democracy. How do we educate people well enough that they can make an informed decision or how do we protect people from being preyed upon?

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