Wednesday, 17 September 2014
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Could technology help catch out lying politicians?

Voice recognition systems are becoming good enough to understand what people say in real time. Now we need the artificial intelligence to check whether they’re telling the truth.

‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’, said George Orwell in 1946. Since then, our faith in politicians to tell the truth certainly doesn’t seem to have increased.

Voter turnout at UK general elections has fallen from 73 per cent to 65 per cent since the end of the Second World War, and it’s easy to speculate that disaffection due to a sense that you can’t believe what politicians say might be a factor in that.

In the recent US election, an entire section of the media appeared to be devoted to fact-checking the candidates’ speeches, with commentators calling out both sides for using data selectively, misleadingly or just plain falsely. Some websites even started fact-checking the fact-checkers.

We’ve seen a similar situation arise in the UK with the likes of Channel 4 News and The Guardian running blogs examining politicians’ claims in the hours after they’ve made them.

Prime minister David Cameron was recently caught out by several publications from across the political spectrum for claiming the government was ‘paying down Britain’s debts’ when it’s actually borrowing more.

But these articles probably often go unread by the majority of the population who may only hear the false claims. (Whether they believe them or not is another matter.) So what if there was a way to instantly check facts and reveal whether a politician was telling porkies?

Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computers and elder statesman of the British computing industry, thinks the technology could soon exist to provide such a solution.

Speaking at a recent lecture organised by networking group Cambridge Wireless, he revealed he had had conversations with bosses at Google about the possibility of an ‘evidence meter’.

‘The idea is if voice recognition is good enough, which it clearly is now, it can run continuous voice recognition at the bottom of your TV screen whenever they interview David Cameron or the opposition leader,’ he said.

‘You could then have a little graph at the bottom of your screen that varies between plus-one and minus-one so when David Cameron says the unemployment rate in Britain is 7.8, it can go away, find evidence as to whether it is 7.8, and shoot up to the plus-one position.

‘So this running evidence-meter below the news item I think could be a very cool thing to implement. I don’t think it’s that far away.’

It sounds like a great idea, and certainly it seems that he’s right about voice recognition technology. Many of us now have smartphones with good enough voice technology to search the internet or dictate and send messages without us touching a button (or screen). And a recent Microsoft demo showed how their system is good enough to offer near-real time voice translation from English into Chinese (see below).

But there’s a much bigger question over the level of artificial intelligence you would need to create the kind of fact-checking technology Hauser is talking about.

‘The problem is the knowledge that would be required for responding to the queries,’ said Anthony Hunter, professor of artificial intelligence (AI) at University College London (UCL).

‘If the queries were within quite a restricted domain then this is perfectly possible. But [for political speeches] the domains would, by and large, be too broad that you could have a significantly broad knowledge base to check those facts … I think AI and natural language processing have some way to go to address those problems.’

Even if an evidence meter could quickly search the entire internet, it would probably also encounter the same problem that human listeners have. A statement might be technically true but out of context it could mislead listeners or fail to give important information about the wider situation.

This is something that professional fact-checkers have become quite good at spotting. For example, Channel 4 recently published an article checking a statement by business secretary Vince Cable that the number of people starting apprenticeships had almost doubled in the last two years.

While it found this was correct, the blog also pointed out that the proportion of people finishing apprenticeships had gone down, as had the number of under-18s starting schemes.

And, of course, Cable didn’t say how many of those apprenticeships were working at the likes of Rolls Royce and how many were learning how to stack shelves in Tesco.

There is a branch of artificial intelligence known as expert systems that deals with the problem of making decisions using a database of knowledge, but initially ambitious predictions about its use gave way to disappointment and a much more modest approach to its use.

‘In the 1980s there was this idea that AI was going to develop quite rapidly and that by 2000 people like doctors and lawyers and so on would be finding themselves redundant,’ said Hunter. ‘But quite quickly it was realised that for a whole range of reasons it’s very difficult to emulate experts.

‘You can build systems that do very particular tasks but to broaden them out is extremely difficult. And to replace all of the interpretation and common sense and so on that humans bring to bear on problems is very, very difficult.’

So even with the incredible advances in voice recognition, it doesn’t look likely that journalists like myself will be put out of a job by fact-checking computers any time soon. (Phew!)


Readers' comments (12)

  • Do not ask when they are lying, ask when they may, just may be in fact telling the truth or something somewhat close to the truth.

    The default is to never trust a politician.

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  • Bankers, Lawyers and Politicians are so devious they will find a way around the inconvenience of telling the truth. Trust me, I am an Engineer!

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  • If that would happen nobody would be a professional politician anymore.

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  • I grew up in an environment where a TRUTH was a TRUTH and a LIE a LIE, No shades of gray.

    I have grown up to understand that there are many shades of truth.

    Factual misrepresentations as politicians are wont to do is another thing altogether, I guess my grandpa would have called Cameron a liar and called him out.

    It is scary to think of a society where Orwellian "thought Police" will prevail. The technology is sufficiently expensive that only some Governments and big business will have initial access.

    Prevarication and deceit have been part of the human condition; and even as the boundaries of AI and Expert systems broaden, and capabilities grow there will evolve defeat mechanisms.

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  • If a politician is speaking then he or she is lieing - it really is that simple...

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  • As I get older I become more disillusioned with the people who rule this and all other countries. As far as I am concerned they all lie all of the time. It should be mandatory that anyone who wishes to enter politics should have no criminal record and if they are arrested for any offence, it should automatically disqualify them from any form of public service for ever.

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  • When a person is lying he or she does it with complete knowledge. This tool will just expose the intent of the person. What after that? The person is shameless and powerful. One lie will lead to a million. Powerful will muzzle the protest. They can be dislodged from power only at fresh elections which could be far in the future. The intervening time is sufficient for them to accomplish their objectives for which they lied. The only way to accomplish any semblance of sanity in this world is to inculcate the habit of telling the the truth in the formative stages of growing up of a child. AI should be used to better the community life of human beings than exposing the untruthful who anyway are in full knowledge of their words.

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  • I started out thinking politicians were liars but nowadays I think it's us. We wouldn't accept anyone who didn't tell us what we want to hear. Since we have a lot of different opinions, politicians have the impossible task of telling us all what we want to hear and bending it to fit the truth as well. We don't elect people who say what they believe honestly (false or not) so we get liars.

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  • I forgot to say that anyone who believes google without question - or any statistic in fact no matter what its providence - is naive.

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  • At present it is considered a serious offence for a M.P. to lie in parliament. It is also an offence for a political candidate to lie about their opponent.
    Shouldn't it we make it an equally serious offence carrying similar penalties for a politician to lie to the electorate.

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