The journalist stared around the control room. ‘It’s like something out of Mission Control.’
Michelle Martin, the project manager smiled widely. ‘Far more sophisticated, Mr Spitz.’
‘Tyler, please – call me Tyler.’ Spitz lifted his palm camera. ‘Okay, we’re recording.’ He scanned slowly around the room, ending on Michelle’s face. ‘So this is the future of politics?’
Michelle shrugged. ‘Not politics, precisely, but public speaking certainly. These systems,’ she gestured around the room, ‘enable us to monitor physiological responses from every audience member. We can track heart rates, blood pressure, eye movements – and a whole lot more.’
‘That’s big data,’ said Tyler.
‘Comparable to the output of the old LHC at CERN. But the difference is, Tyler, we can process it in real-time. We combine, compare, contrast – and get a moment by moment assessment of how the speech is going. We can then feed a summary back to the speaker, who tunes the content to amplify or counter the way the audience feels.’
Spitz perched on the edge of an active desk, which gave off a howl of protest. He jumped up with an apologetic smile, but didn’t let it interrupt his flow. ‘But how is that feedback managed? You can’t just pour this data into the speaker’s brain. How do you do that?’
Michelle pointed to the slit windows, where one-way glass showed the presidential candidate beginning the final part of her speech. A cheer from the crowd shook the room. ‘You’re right. It’s the weak link, but we do our best.’ She walked across to a desk where a young man with a long beard was muttering into a headset, his eyes constantly flicking across data visualisation screens. ‘That’s Danny’s job. He’s fed the summary data and prompts the speaker, who tunes her words and approach to reflect the audience reaction.’
Tyler nodded. ‘One last question. It’s fine here on home turf, but you can’t take this whole control room on the stump. How are you going to manage once we’re into the primaries?’
‘It’s not going to be a problem. We don’t need to be co-located. We’ll operate from here while we’re testing the equipment. We can link to anywhere with internet access. And we have a portable version of the control room under development – it looks a little like a sound desk – which will be available by the time we’re into the general election.’
Tyler held his hand out at arm’s length for a selfie wrap. ‘The latest in PR technology, or a worrying step towards political manipulation? You decide. This is Tyler Spitz, for INN News.’ He dropped his hand. ‘Thank you so much. I’ll just go and do some cutaways in the hall while she’s still speaking, if that’s okay?’
‘Fine by me,’ said Michelle. ‘Thanks, Tyler.’ She waited until he was out of the soundproofed control room and gave a deep sigh. In the corner, her assistant, Danny was still muttering into his headset. Martin slid up the speakers to hear him saying ‘Nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.’ He spotted her and stripped off the headset with a grin.
‘It’s orisons, Danny.’
‘You made orisons sound like horizons with a dropped H at the start. Shakespeare was talking about prayers.’
‘Whatever,’ said Danny. ‘We did Hamlet at school and the soliloquy stuck in my head. I find it easier to pretend to be giving commands if I can recite something.’
‘Okay,’ said Michelle, ‘let’s send them home with something to get excited about.’ She walked over to the master control, currently at 50 per cent. As the presidential candidate started a rising phrase, she pushed it up to 80. There was no obvious change in the flow of speech, but something about the presentation shifted and the audience surged to their feet in a wave of spontaneous applause. ‘It’s almost too easy,’ said Michelle.
Some hours later, with the hall empty, Michelle Martin checked round the control room, ensured the systems were shut down, and locked the security doors. Outside, in the main auditorium, a figure was slumped on a stool on the stage. Michelle walked slowly over, her heels clicking on the polished floor. The presidential candidate was still there, facing an empty hall.
‘Time to go home,’ Michelle said to her. There was no response. Michelle gestured to Danny, who was pushing over a large, wheeled packing crate – the kind used to transport portable equipment to gigs. ‘Come on Danny,’ she said, ‘don’t be all night. I need some beauty sleep before we try out in Chicago.’
‘Okay,’ muttered Danny, arriving on stage alongside the candidate.
‘Hey Geri,’ said Michelle to the candidate, ‘time to get in the box.’
Without speaking the candidate stepped into the container and lay down. The built-in induction loops began to recharge her batteries.
‘Do you really think this can work?’ asked Danny as he clicked the locks closed.
‘Absolutely,’ said Michelle. ‘Wired straight into Geri’s AI, the ability to instantly respond to the audience mood gives unbelievable levels of persuasion. We’ve just got one problem.’
‘If the public discover that the president’s an AI?’
Michelle shook her head. ‘No. They’ll accept it – Geri will make sure of that. It’s just that what we’ve got here is a machine for winning elections. But that doesn’t make Geri any good as a president. We just have to hope Geri II is ready to replace her in time for the inauguration.’
It was the classic AI dilemma. Geri was the election-winning equivalent of a chess computer. Michelle winced. They had a year to work out what should go inside the president’s new clothes. It wasn’t long.