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THE WASHINGTON POST

Speech-Writing Robots Can Parrot Pandering Candidates

Rise of the robotic politicians?
Rise of the robotic politicians?
Brian Fung

-OpEd-

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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, our nation's 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.

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 analyze the last five words of a sentence in order to figure out what the sixth one should be.

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 later massage into a serviceable diatribe against job-killing regulations or climate science deniers.

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.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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