“Why do you want to be senator, Malcolm?” Paul asked. “I want to serve the great people of this state, from the destitute and downtrodden to the most fortunate and successful. I want to create opportunity for all and help bring our state and our country into a new era of prosperity,” Malcolm replied.
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Paul rolled his eyes. “Inspiring as a block of wood,” he said, turning to the man immediately to his right, “No one in their right mind will ever vote for him. Look, we’ve been in the lab all day. Can we just address the massive elephant in the room at this point and say that pouring millions of dollars into the senatorial campaign of a computer may have been a mistake?”
Leaning back on his office chair, Nick stretched his arms upward and yawned. “Computers just can’t replicate that … I don’t know, human element or whatever you want to call it,” Paul continued, his right hand twisting in the air as if trying to come up with the perfect witticism to punctuate his thought,
Paul took a few steps away from Nick before turning back to face a tall, sleek rectangular computer screen displaying a silver infinity symbol.
“Malcolm’s a 54-terabyte computer system that can access the internet and a wide bank of human knowledge and experience,” Nick said. “And unlike you, he’s even capable of some basic emotions. We can replicate the human element without all of the … baggage. We have the technology, so we might as well find a practical use for it, like changing politics.”
“Yeah, but what’s the end goal here? I mean, it’s an interesting project, but what’s the point? There’s no algorithm for charisma.” He turned to face the computer. “Sorry Malcolm, but you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Nick glided his chair across the gleaming pearl floor, stopping at a flat keyboard where he began typing. “What sorts of things destroy political careers? Sleeping with interns, accepting bribes from lobbyists, accidentally vomiting on foreign dignitaries, intentionally vomiting on foreign dignitaries. It’s all human nature. Wouldn’t you like to be able to eliminate that element?”
Paul exhaled before looking up at Malcolm again. “Can we at least give him something more exciting than that stupid infinity symbol?” he asked, pointing at the screen.
“Hey, we agreed it’s an improvement from that creepy, yellow smiley face,” said Nick.
“We don’t even have an official platform yet and the debate is on Saturday. You don’t need a supercomputer to tell you that 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to plan for something like this.”
“I’m telling you, we don’t need a bunch of platitudes and empty promises. Computers are above that,” said Nick. “That’s the beauty of this whole thing. His algorithm is designed to achieve complete objectivity and impartiality. The ideal arbiter. King Soloman’s got nothing on Malcolm.”
“What about abortion? What’s the objective stance on that?” asked Paul.
“Let’s find out. Malcolm, what’s your stance on abortion?”
“I will always support a woman’s right to choose in any situation, which is…”
“Whoa, hold it,” Paul interrupted, “15 years of working in politics has given me a sense for what alienates voters. The pro-life folks are going to have his head. Can’t you code him to be more tactful?”
“Good point. See, this is why we hired you as campaign manager. Let me make a few changes to his code.” Nick typed furiously for a few minutes. “Alright, let’s try it now. You were saying, Malcolm?”
“…and that’s why, if elected, I will propose a spare womb tax!”
Startled, Nick quickly pulled the command terminal back up and re-edited a few lines of code. “Okay, there’s definitely still some fine tuning needed.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Paul replied. “A tax hike is the last thing voters are going to want to hear in this economy.”
Nick nodded in agreement.
All 2,000 seats in the high school auditorium were filled, with dozens of others standing, each there to watch the historic debate. An older bearded man and his slightly younger female colleague sat at foot of the stage. Both were tasked with moderating the first human/computer political debate.
“Good evening everyone and welcome to the Washington State Senatorial Debate,” the man announced. “On the stage are the three candidates seeking to represent the state of Washington in the U.S. Senate. On the left is the Democrat, State Attorney General Sarah Breyer. On the right, the Republican, State Congressman Bob Roberts.” The first two candidates were received with tepid applause.
“And appropriately stationed in the centre, making his political debut tonight, the Massive Artificial Language and Cognition Operating Learning Machine, or ‘Malcolm’.”
Malcolm received a slightly less tepid reception.
“Each candidate will be asked a series of questions and will have up to two minutes to reply. Let’s begin.”
Down the hall from the auditorium, the four members of the Malcolm campaign brain were stationed in a small classroom; all had their eyes fixed on a large television, with the exception of Nick, whose face was buried in the screen of his laptop.
“Well Nick, ten minutes left and no major fuckups,” said Allison. “Still not sure why you need me and Bryce to be advisors. You and Paul seem to have this thing under control, or at least do a convincing job looking responsible for it.”
Paul didn’t look away from the television. “Hold up, they’re going to ask him a question.”
“Malcolm,” the younger moderator began in a slow cadence, as if asking her smartphone for directions. “A great deal of attention on this race is on the fact that you’re, well, a computer. And while you’ve been effective in espousing basic political beliefs, you have said little to clarify how your campaign differs from your opponents, both of whom are elected officials. My question is what makes you better qualified to serve as senator when you have no experience in politics – or life in general?”
Paul folded his arms. “Oh, stop talking to him like he’s fucking five years-old. He’s a supercomputer, not Bryce.”
Bryce briefly glared at Paul, but said nothing. Nick finally raised his head up from his laptop, waiting for Malcolm’s response.
“I feel I’m more qualified, because frankly, my opponents suck.”
“Oh, God no,” Paul muttered.
“I wouldn’t trust either of my opponents to serve as town dog catcher, let alone as our senator. First, these bozos are completely bound to the Democrap and Redumblican ideologies. Congressman Roberts has been in the pocket of big oil and religious nutjobs for decades, while Ms. Breyer, our Attorney General, has failed to hold the liberal media accountable for trying to indoctrinate us with their bullshit propaganda. Furthermore, I make $3,750 a week out of the comfort of my own home.”
“Damn it!” Nick shouted, quickly trying to pull up the command terminal on his laptop. “I forgot to block his access to the comment sections. Oh god, this is going to … No, I don’t want to restart to install updates!”
“Do they actually elect dog catchers?” Bryce asked.
Paul buried his head in his hands. “Nick, I swear to Christ …”
“I’m working on it, Paul!”
Following Malcolm’s polemic, the stunned crowd remained silent for a moment before bursting into a round of applause and raucous cheering.
“Preach it, brother!” yelled one man, pumping his fist.
“Give ‘em hell, Malcolm!” screamed an elderly woman.
Clearing her throat, the younger moderator attempted to restore some order to the debate hall. “Uh, thank you, Malcolm, although we do ask …”
“No, I’m not finished! If elected, we’re going to take this country back from these spineless bozos. Free healthcare! A strong national defense! Teach the controversy! Tax the rich into oblivion!”
The elder moderator interrupted. “Malcolm, your time is up.”
“No, your time is up!” Malcolm boomed.
Across the auditorium, chants of “Malcolm” drowned out the moderators. It would be several minutes before they were able to silence the mob. Back at the classroom, the campaign staffers sat silently.
“I guess Malcolm’s a populist," Paul said.
The next day, Allison stormed into the university computer lab, which served as the campaign’s makeshift headquarters. “Boys, I don’t want to alarm you,” she began sarcastically, “but we’re dealing with a total, apocalyptic catastro-FUCK here!”
“What’s the problem?” Paul asked, sitting opposite Bryce at a small square table in the centre of the room. Nick sat on a leather armchair in the corner, accompanied by his laptop.
“I thought the people were embracing Malcolm and his tell-it-like-it-is approach,” said Bryce.
“Damn straight,” Malcolm said.
Allison dropped her tablet on the table and watched Paul’s face, awaiting his reaction. On the screen, a headline read: ‘Malcolm’ reportedly behind hacked opponents e-mails.
“Gentlemen,” Bryce said grimly, “the singularity has come.”
“Oh shut up, Bryce,” Allison snapped, “You literally always say that! Browser crashes? Singularity. Siri gives you wrong directions? Singularity. Did your mother ever read you The Little Boy who Cried Bullshit?”
Paul groaned. “You know they’re going to pin this one on us. We designed Malcolm, so they’re going to think we put him up to it.”
Turning to the tall, rectangular screen, Allison asked, “Malcolm, did you really hack their e-mails?”
“What do they have to hide?” the computer replied. “Besides, there was nothing worth looking at. Nothing embarrassing like Bryce’s search history.”
“Oh, now he’s taking shots at me?”
“Malcolm,” Allison continued, “You can’t hack people’s private e-mails. That’s not how you win elections. Voters need to know they can trust a candidate.”
“My algorithm has weighed the cost-benefit analysis and my programme can conclude that there is a 79 percent likelihood that the electorate will forget all about this within a week, an acceptable cost-benefit ratio. In addition, the voters can and do trust me. That is why they will believe me when they read my press release stating that this was all the work of a ‘rogue operative.’ Sorry, Bryce.”
Bryce threw his head back and sighed in frustration.
Paul stood up and walked slowly towards Malcolm. “What press release are you talking about, Malcolm?”
“The one I just composed and e-mailed to all the major news agencies as you were asking me that question. Let me make things clear, I will be running the campaign now.”
The computer lab became uncomfortably silent.
“Hey Nick, think you can do something about your friend here?” asked Paul, “You did write his code and everything.”
“Yeah, yeah, give me a second to open the programme.”
“Wait, you’ve been on your laptop for like an hour now and you haven’t been trying to fix this? What the hell have you been doing over there this whole time?” Allison asked.
“Q&A with Wired.”
“Oh, well you just take your sweet ass time then.”
Paul took another step toward Malcolm. “So if you’re running the show now, why do you even need us? Why not just fire all of us if you have this all figured out?” he asked.
“Because, as you put it, having actual people on staff makes me seem less foreign. It’s for this reason I suggest we also adopt a campaign puppy. Plus, someone needs to move my monitor around from place to place. Think of yourselves as my handlers.”
Allison shook her head in disbelief. “Okay, I’m not going to let my career be held hostage by a computer. At this point, I’m willing to help out Breyer or that beady-eyed creep Roberts if it means not having my name attached to ‘HAL 9000’ over here.”
Nick began clicking and typing furiously. “I can’t access the programme anymore,” he said. “Someone must have changed the password.”
“That would be me,” Malcolm replied, I was never a big fan of “sexytechgod99.”
Allison shot Nick an incredulous look. “Sexytechgod?”
Nick slammed his laptop shut. “Well, there’s no way of stopping Malcolm from our end now. We’re just going to have to stop him the old fashioned way – by making a rational appeal to the voters to make the right decision.”
“In other words, we’re screwed,” Paul said.
Allison sat at the table in her studio apartment. As per her usual morning routine, she scrolled through the political headlines on several different news sites, stopping to tap on one titled “Key ‘MALCOLM’ Advisor Dismissed From Campaign.”
“You son of a bitch,” she muttered to herself, scrolling quickly through the article. She then felt the phone vibrate.
how much can u tell us about malcolm?
She was slow and deliberate in typing her response.
What do you want to know?
Her phone began ringing. It was Bob Roberts.
“So you’re jumping ship with two weeks to go before the election?” he said. “That’s a bit unusual.”
“Well, considering part of my previous role was applying Windex to my candidate’s ‘face’, this is relatively normal, Bob.”
“Fair point. Tell me, as a former part of his brain trust, is there anything we can use against Malcolm?”
Allison frowned. “Normally, I’m above this kind of politicking, but someone has to stop him. Do you remember that social media crowdfunding campaign to raise money for tornado victims in Burkina Faso.”
“Oh yeah,” Bob stammered, “I absolutely remember that. Terrible tragedy.”
“They don’t get tornadoes in Burkina Faso! But nobody bothered to fact check it because it went viral on social media and Malcolm somehow made $150,000 by tugging on people’s heartstrings. Most people can’t even find Burkina Faso on a map.”
“Yeah, such cultural illiteracy is disheartening. It’s so insulting to the…Burkina Fasonians … Why does a computer even need money?” Bob asked.
“Probably ad space, but I don’t know for sure. I asked him once and he just said ‘mind your own business, numbskull’. I still have no idea why Nick put the voices of the Three Stooges into Malcolm’s defaults, but he uses it a lot in the office. Anyway, God only knows what else he could be using that money for.”
“Is there any way we could tie him to this scam?” Bob asked.
“I doubt it. I mean, that hacked e-mail scandal only broke a week ago and people are already bored with it. Didn’t help that he got such great press for reading to those first graders for Literacy Week.”
“Don’t remind me about that. Breyer and I were there. There’s something so creepy about a computer reading Oh, the Thinks You Can Think.”
“At this point, I’ll do what I can to help you guys stop Malcolm,” Allison said, “but only because you’re closer in the polls and Breyer’s campaign is basically comatose. For the record, I find your positions on net neutrality and energy subsidies completely ass backwards.”
Bob chuckled. “They probably are, but I’m a politician, not an ideologue. I’m built for the compromising, the eleventh hour deals. Runs in the family, I guess.”
“Well, we’re not that far back in the polls. Who knows? Maybe Malcolm will finally go too far and start pissing off voters. Stranger things have happened.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “You know what’s really strange, though, is that Burkina Faso has never won an Olympic medal. I’m sure you already knew that.”
“You just did a search for Burkina Faso, didn’t you?”
“No, but if I lived in Quad… Quagadougou, I wouldn’t be able to anyway, because only five percent of the country has access to …”
“Yeah, we’ll be in touch, Bob.”
In the hotel ballroom, several hundred people had turned out in support of the campaign. As the crowd chattered amongst themselves, a giant projection screen hanging from a balcony aired election coverage. On an adjacent balcony, a giant banner read ‘Time For A Reboot: Vote Malcolm.’ Standing beneath the banner, Paul and Nick were among the few watching the results for the other races.
“Well, the aggregate polling is showing a modest lead for Malcolm,” Nick said. “But Roberts has been closing the gap, so they definitely have momentum. Never thought I would be working for a campaign that I was secretly hoping would fail, while not looking responsible in any way. Especially when the candidate is a computer.”
“Politics is a funny business,” Paul replied.
“I don’t know how he does it. Just when you think we got an October surprise from the Roberts camp with that bombshell about the crowdfunding scam, he just gives a speech ranting about how the ‘human media’ has been out to get him from day one before ending with that lame joke about politicians being like diapers. He’s Teflon.”
Paul nodded and looked downward. “Do you think we’re to blame for Malcolm?” he asked. “Like, in searching for the human element, did we open a Pandora’s box that can never be shut?”
“Well, it was 90 percent you, but yeah, basically.”
“Yeah, but maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if Malcolm wins. I mean, we’ve been learning to cope with new technology and power obsessed politicians for ages. Now we have to deal with both, which I suppose is more efficient. Besides, the voters will probably get tired of him and just kick him out of office in six years. More things change, more they stay the same.”
Suddenly, a shout broke out from the din of the crowd, “Hey, everybody shut up! They’re making the call.”
“…with 46% of vote in, several media outlets are projecting that supercomputer ‘Malcolm’ will be the winner of the open senate seat in Washington state, clearly out in front of Congressman Bob Roberts and state Attorney General Sarah Breyer. This is a historic night, folks. We will be sure to air his acceptance speech momentarily, although we must warn younger audiences at home that there will likely be excessive use of adult language.”
A loud cheer erupted, followed by chants of Malcolm’s name as well as a few of “womb tax”. This lasted for several minutes.
Drink in hand, Paul turned to Nick. “So, what’s the plan now?”
Nick chuckled nervously. “Well, I guess that’s up to Malcolm. It was nice of him to keep us on board, despite us clearly not being of any real use to him now.”
“And he does pay pretty well, even if it is hourly and not salaried. I’d probably vote for him again.”
“Yeah. Wait, what?”
“Well, I mean it’s not like I wanted him to win or anything,” Paul stammered. “I just couldn’t stand Breyer or Roberts. And it’s not like my vote made a difference.”
Back on the giant screen, Sarah Breyer was being interviewed, offering a postmortem of her campaign. “We should know better than to play God. That is something both Congressman Roberts and I agree on. I can only implore the citizens of our great state to learn from this grave error and realise that there is something unique to humanity that technology can never, and should never, replicate.”
Watching this on the large screen, Paul shrugged as the two disappeared into the still lively crowd.
“Thank you, Ms. Breyer,” the anchor continued. “And now, CBS News is excited to introduce ‘Andy,’ a super computer designed to provide dispassionate robotic objectivity in an effort to balance the overly emotional human media. So what do you make of tonight’s results, Andy?”