Silicon Valley insiders are trying to unseat Biden with help from AI

Stopping New Hampshire voters on the sidewalk, refilling their coffee mugs at diners and repeating his stump speech, long-shot presidential candidate Dean Phillips — the real one — explains why he thinks Democrats shouldn’t renominate President Biden: The leader of his party has lost the confidence of a majority of the electorate.

A just-released artificial intelligence bot version of Phillips offers a similar answer: “While I respect President Biden, the data and conversations with Americans across the country indicates a strong desire for change.”

A new super PAC backed by Silicon Valley insiders is mobilizing to spread Phillips’s ideas in an unusual way. This week, they launched Dean.Bot after weighing the implications of using a sophisticated AI tool that can chat like a real person — one of the first known uses of artificial intelligence in a political campaign.

This version of the chatbot replicating Rep. Dean Phillips’s voice was powered by the large language model behind ChatGPT, and other open-source software. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The techies behind the bot are getting help from activist hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who has described the fight as protecting Democrats from nominating a candidate who can’t win. The PAC has already raised $4 million to target New Hampshire voters with short confessional-style videos — targeted social media ads featuring Phillips and supporters making his case.

Two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Matt Krisiloff and Jed Somers, formed the group We Deserve Better in early December after they saw Biden’s increasingly low poll numbers. The men — who, along with many of their donors, are political novices — decided to jump into presidential politics because they felt like Biden “was slowing down very noticeably” over the last year, a concern they say is broadly felt in the tech world, Krisiloff said. (Biden has released medical information from his doctor saying he is fit to serve.)

The PAC’s efforts, though unlikely to move the needle for a challenger who has gained very little traction despite Biden’s unpopularity, reflect enduring discontent among Democrats, including wealthy donors, with the president’s candidacy and suggest that a new class of Silicon Valley donors on the left may be among the few willing to act on that sentiment. They also show how new and risky technologies are starting to creep into the 2024 presidential election.

Experts say interactive audio like the one Krisiloff and Somers created for Phillips can potentially present the greatest risks to elections, even as the Dean.Bot acknowledges that it’s AI when asked.

“I see this as a Pandora’s box problem,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. Barrett said he believed a disclaimer was not enough to safeguard against the abuse of such technologies. “Once we have AI versions of candidates chatting up voters, it’s a short step to bots used by political opponents to fool voters into thinking that politicians are saying things they never said. And soon, everyone gets so cynical about all of this fake communication that no one believes anything anyone is saying.”

OpenAI, the company that makes ChatGPT, a conversational AI software that initially helped powered Dean.Bot, bans the use of its artificial intelligence tools in political campaigns. The company also bans the use of its services to impersonate people without their consent.

After The Washington Post asked We Deserve Better about the policy, the group said that it had requested the service provider that it contracted to build the bot, a start-up called Delphi, remove ChatGPT from Dean.Bot, and rely instead on other open-source models that had gone into making the tool — and that Delphi had agreed to do so. OpenAI said it was looking into the issue.

To fund their group, Krisiloff and Somers tapped into their elite techie network, recruiting 17 donors that include Neal Khosla, a health entrepreneur and son of billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and Jed McCaleb, a billionaire cryptocurrency entrepreneur. Krisiloff, a former chief of staff to Sam Altman, approached the OpenAI CEO about getting involved — but he ultimately declined to invest, Krisoloff said. (Altman didn’t respond to a comment request.)

McCaleb, 48, said he hasn’t donated previously to political campaigns but gave money to the PAC because “of how critical this election is” and because someone younger would be more able to keep pace with technological change.

“Part of why I’m doing this is that I’m very disappointed in the Democratic Party,” McCaleb said. “I don’t understand why they are ignoring this fact,” referring to Biden’s low general election polling numbers.

Phillips told The Post in November that he found Altman “to be an extraordinary thinker and friend and voice of counsel and support.” In December, he told an audience at a cryptocurrency conference in New Hampshire that crypto and AI should not be stifled by government. At an AI event in the state Thursday, Phillips himself said he was in favor of campaigns and PACs using AI technology but that there needs to be guardrails.

“We should have AI regulations already for political campaigns,” Phillips said. He added, “I think by demonstrating the good uses of it, the effective and efficient uses of it, that’s how we can actually make it something people are not afraid of but actually celebrate.”

Although Biden is struggling against low approval ratings and some polls showing him trailing former president Donald Trump in a general election matchup, Phillips — who has focused his campaign in New Hampshire, where Biden is not on the primary ballot due to a new reordering of the nominating calendar his team orchestrated — has had little success rallying support. A CBS News reporter recently photographed Phillips sitting in the back of his campaign truck alone because no voters had shown up to a meet-and-greet. Polling show Phillips mired in the single digits in New Hampshire.

Krisiloff said the PAC doesn’t necessarily believe Phillips needs to win New Hampshire — but they would be happy if he got about 30 percent.

“Our attitude right now is to go all in on New Hampshire,” Krisiloff said. “I think a lot of people will be interested in [Phillips] if they actually believe this is credible.”

Ackman, who has historically donated to Democratic candidates but not Biden and has recently led a charge to oust Harvard’s president, was a late entrant, upping the We Deserve Better PAC’s pot to $4 million. Speaking during an audio-only event with X owner Elon Musk and podcast host Jason Calacanis on X, formerly Twitter, Ackman praised Phillips’s business acumen after heading Talenti and his family’s distillery company. Ackman, an increasingly vocal opponent of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, said the country needs a more centrist candidate rather than one of two “extremes.”

After Ackman’s endorsement, the Phillips campaign deleted a mention of DEI from its website, and Ackman posted that Phillips was “getting educated.” Asked about the change, Phillips brushed off the notion that he was catering to the desires of a wealthy patron. “Nobody buys me,” he said on CNN.

Phillips has also shifted on other fronts. He previously touted his posture of not taking PAC money but recently changed his stance for his presidential campaign. End Citizens United, a pro-Biden group that opposes special interest money and had supported Phillips when he ran for Congress in 2018, said it was “a disgrace to see how far he’s fallen.”

Some Biden allies have scoffed at the infusion of cash behind Phillips. “It’s just an amazing way to piss away a million dollars,” Jim Messina, who managed Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and remains close with Biden’s inner circle, said in an interview about Ackman’s donation.

Disparate forces have appeared to be helping Phillips’s bid. Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt first urged Phillips to run. Schmidt later formed a super PAC, Pass the Torch, to back Phillips while the Silicon Valley organizers decided to start their own.

Such independent expenditure groups can solicit larger donations than the campaign can, bringing in wealthier donors, and can spend unlimited money. But they cannot directly coordinate strategy with the candidate. They can, however, promote the candidate’s speeches and events, and PACs have found other ways to run parallel to campaigns.

We Deserve Better hired a team to run mostly online ads, including some where Philips talks about how he was blacklisted by the Democratic Party for attempting to challenge Biden. Phillips, who flipped his Minneapolis suburban district in 2018, has rooted his campaign in electability: presenting himself as a better bet for the general election than Biden.

And the engineers behind Dean.Bot hope that the bot can help make him accessible to more voters. Users can visit the website on desktop or mobile, accept the disclaimer, click “start call” and then speak into a mic to ask questions. A loading circle spins around Phillips’s headshot when the AI is “thinking,” and then the bot that sounds like Phillips speaks.

Other politicians have released chatbots that pretend to be candidates, including former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (R) and a PAC backing Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (R) — both onetime presidential hopefuls. Delphi, the start-up that helped build Dean.Bot, also developed an AI tool mimicking two dozen presidential candidates in the fall. And the Republican National Committee produced an attack ad of Biden with AI-generated videos of a dystopian future. But the technology behind those bots appear to use pre-scripted responses. The Dean.Bot is inventing the answers in real time.

“This is meant to be a fun educational tool, and it’s not perfect,” according to a disclaimer that asks for users’ consent to use AI. “Feel free to ask it anything, but please take answers with a grain of salt!”

To build Dean.Bot, Somers and Krisiloff’s team fed a spate of technological tools samples of Phillips’s voice from podcasts, interviews and speeches — exposing the software to 236,000 words. The tools then ingested that data and spit out a bot that could engage in audio conversation, like a somewhat stilted phone chat through a website.

Neither Krisiloff nor Somers had political experience before running the super PAC. Neither is using of his personal money in the PAC. They said that Andrew Yang, a businessman who ran for president in 2020, introduced them to Phillips and that when they met Phillips, his plan was to recruit someone else to run against Biden. But he couldn’t find any takers.

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