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The Democratic Debate That Wasn’t: How Tech Could Help Elections

I watched the Democratic debates last week and was struck by three things: I’d likely rather watch paint dry; the application of technology to improve the experience was nonexistent; and I’d bet that if the Democrats don’t up their game President Trump will have them to thank when he wins re-election.

I’m generally frustrated about how little technology is used to improve the presentations made by technology companies, but in this case both the preservation of the U.S. and perhaps the survival of the world are tied to the next election, and last week’s effort fell well below what should have been done.

I’ll suggest some ways technology could be used to improve events like the non-debate the Democrats put on last week. I’ll close with my product of the week: Amazon’s new Echo Show 5, which has taken the lead for price performance among digital assistants.

How to Improve Political Debates

Given how much the Democrats complain about the U.S. president’s inability to tell the truth, you’d think that if they put on something called a “debate” it would include some debating. The closest we got to that last week was when the folks on stage went off script and started yelling at each other. (That was more argument than debate but at least it was interesting.)

We used to have to watch things like this live, and there were time limits that created ugly compromises, much like we saw last week. No one got enough time. However, we are at critical mass for people who stream content now. Plus, our TVs are increasingly intelligent, and most of us have some digital device with us as we watch a debate.

This means debates could be more dynamic. For those who don’t know a candidate, provide links so they can learn more without having to go off on their own and search Google (which happened a lot).

In addition, with an app you could allow viewers to stream a full argument from a politician they were interested in and get the complete picture of a position. You then could, through automatic transcription and the application of an AI, get near real-time comparisons between a number of politicians at once, so you could identify those you mostly agreed with and separate from those you thought were nuts. Granted, this doesn’t help if they are all nuts.

You must believe that the political parties, not to mention the social networks, know all about you, and they could point out which candidates are the most aligned to your mindset and interests. I know a few years back when we had no incumbent, a similar analysis (I’m a Republican) indicated my views were closest to moderate Democrat Joe Biden.

With smart glasses, or simply a feed to their podiums, candidates could get real-time updates and help from their staff. Once they had the job, they would have the CIA, FBI, NSA, Secret Service, State Department and other organizations to rely on. They wouldn’t need to rely on their memories alone, and they shouldn’t be in the habit of doing that.

Many of our problems are the result of politicians unnecessarily firing from the hip because they failed to research their positions or to use their resources in a timely way. In a data-rich age, we should have fewer hip shooters, not more.

Demonstrating the capability to use technology in real time to improve positions and decisions should be a requirement of the job, and it isn’t cheating in this instance. These people aren’t competing in a game show — they are trying to showcase that they would be the best candidate. The job will require them to use the vast resources of the U.S. — not act like some old guy who only watches Fox News and chases kids off his lawn in his substantial free time.

There was a lot of wasted screen space during the debate, which could have been used to provide background on the candidates or display information about what people are searching on most frequently. Granted, you’d want to use a censoring AI to make sure folks didn’t game that system to prank the speakers or do them harm. Just a running chart on what folks were searching on would tell the viewer, moderators and even speakers what was resonating so they could appeal to the audience more effectively.

Why is it necessary to have an audience in the room? That just forces a rigid timeline, and that timeline reduces understanding as well as the effectiveness and entertainment value of the result. Yes, an audience provides applause, but that tends to slow down the process anyway.

Now of the 10 people on the stage, chances are you are only interested in two or three of them. An AI could help you pick which two or three (and make recommendations for those who aren’t on your list). Then it also could formulate and present a virtual debate surrounding issues you care about between the two candidates using an AI clone.

Recall that IBM Watson did a really good job of debating a real debate champion a few months ago. It lost, but it showcased that you could program an AI to perform as a debater. If you trained multiple AIs on the politicians, users could pick those they wanted and pit them against each other virtually. Granted, each campaign would need to train its own AI, but the AI also could answer questions from voters at scale.

Now we also can engage at scale through smartphone apps or websites. Moderators have choices of questions, and they could have the audience vote on the questions to ask and even which candidates to ask them of in real time. That way the event automatically would be optimized for the people who tuned in.

Tracking Things Like Equal Time

Coverage of the candidates went from around 10 minutes, which wasn’t enough, to five minutes, which was a joke. I mean, why show up if you are only going to get five minutes out of two hours? Moderators can get running tallies that showcase who is getting the least coverage and then could direct more questions to those people.

Given what happened between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the last election, special care should be taken at least to appear fairer so large numbers of voters wouldn’t feel disenfranchised again and stay home.

Real-Time Translation

It was cute to see some of the politicians speak Spanish, but there is a decent chance that most of their audience wasn’t that impressed, because they didn’t. We could do real-time translation, though, and either pop up subtitles or have a voiceover with the translation.

The politicians wouldn’t have to repeat themselves, and viewers could hear or see the response in their preferred language. I think language skills are a plus in a politician, particularly when it comes to negotiations, and this would allow a politician to show off those skills without pissing off or losing the audience.

Job Interview at Scale

When you and I interview for a job we start with a resume and then sit for an interview focused on whether we have the skills for the job. We don’t get on TV and get asked a bunch of wide-ranging questions, have little or no time to answer them, and then get sniped at by our competitors.

The interview process may have very little to do with the job we will get, but this fake debate format is even further from the job a president will do. In short, all these folks are attempting to showcase skills they may never use outside of the campaign.

A real debate would be closer to a negotiation they might have to do between countries, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear some details from folks who worked with them on how well they did their past jobs?

Having a job and doing that job well are potentially two different things, and rather than just focusing on questions having to do with the next job, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on how well they did in the last one?

If it really isn’t going to be a debate, why not just make this a job interview? You could show some of the questions in real time but provide links to more extensive interviews for audience members who might want to drill down.

I’m suggesting that with technology we could focus a bit more on competence and a ton less on BS. Maybe, just maybe, we’d get a final choice for president of both candidates being qualified rather than the more typical case of neither making the grade.

Wrapping Up

We have all this technology, and the information out there on each one of us could fill books, but it’s not being used to improve our election process, in terms of fielding the best candidates for the job. Technology not only could make election events more interesting, but also could help us make better choices between candidates, and perhaps get us back to talking about issues rather than the latest ad hominem attack.

Whether in politics or in technology, the goal appears to be to just to get through the event when it should be to help us make better, more informed choices. Borrowing from The Six Million Dollar Man, we have the technology — why don’t we fricken use it to improve our world, starting with helping us make better political choices? Maybe, in the future, our governments would get the things done we want done. Right now, I doubt our government even knows what that is.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

I was one of the early adopters for the Amazon Echo Show and it had some issues — from a camera that made it iffy in the bedroom to a price that pushed it out of range for most of us.

Then came the Echo Spot, which was far more attractively priced but had a tiny display that was almost useless, along with a camera. Both had buttons to turn the cameras off, but it was easy to turn them back on again without the user knowing, which is problematic when it comes to privacy expectations and some laws.

Amazon Show 5

Amazon Show 5

Well the new Echo Show is priced like the Spot was (around US$89), has a larger and more useful display, plus a slider that physically blocks the camera and puts a white dot on the face to show you the camera has been blocked. Someone would have to come into the room to turn the camera on, and doing so would remove the white dot. (I’d still like a bigger alert that the camera is active myself, but this is an improvement.)

There still is a larger Echo Show for $229 with twice the screen and better speakers, but you can upgrade this Show with Bluetooth speakers for better sound, and the 5-inch display is fine for most things. (You aren’t watching movies on a 10-inch device anyway). The larger one also has a Zigbee smart hub that most will never use.

This is likely the perfect Echo device for many, in that it is well-priced, has the full feature set (including video), and is useful in most of the places you’d use it. I’d still like more choices as to activation words, as every one of the Echos I have has a different word, and everyone fires up unintentionally from time to time. (My favorite is watching Star Trek and having the one in my living room, which answers to “computer,” try to respond to the TV actors interacting with the computer in the Enterprise or Discovery).

I also anticipate a future app for the Echo Show 5 that would call out BS every time someone on the TV lied. Granted, when some politicians are talking, it might have a meltdown. Still, because this is the best Echo to date and I am up to my armpits in Echo devices, the new Amazon Echo Show is my product of the week.

During the coming Amazon Prime day, I’ll bet you can buy one of these for closer to $50, which would be a huge deal. Christmas shopping early, anyone?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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