Machine Politicians Expected To Dominate The Late Nineties
Written by Timons Esaias
We called to set up an interview the very hour that we were shown the company's slogan: 'Advancing Machine Politics into the Twenty- first Century'. The company is named Democracy Systems Ltd., and we found its headquarters nestled in the cavernous depths of Panther Hollow, overlooked by the Isengard-like tower which houses the offices of the University of Pittsburgh. The one-time Smoky City is replacing its rusting steel-mill image with a new reality of high-tech, cybernetic elitism. Panther Hollow is the Eastern equivalent of Silicon Valley.
We spoke with Mr. Vince Hiro (whose parents, incidentally, fled Japan when the Tojo government made a mockery of 'democracy' there) the Vice President in charge of the Marketing Division. The interview took place in his office, which is mostly decorated in spreadsheets and coffee cups. There is a fax machine in one corner, perched precariously atop stacks of computer printout. The pile of envelopes in the overflowing 'In' box was weighted down by a copy of The Almanac of American Politics.
NN: Frankly, we're puzzled by the company's slogan. We thought the era of machine politics was long gone; with Chicago's Mayor Daley being ther last of the breed. What's your angle?
DS: It's funny that you should mention Daley. Actually, machines are becoming an ever-increasing part of modern politics. It was voting machines that allowed Daly to adjust the 1960 results in Kennedy's favor; so in a sense, what people think of as the last hurrah of machine politics was really just a transition to a new phase.
NN: So you make voting machines??
DS: Yes, that's one of our sidelines. There's a lot of room for advanced technology applications in that field. Frankly, most jurisdictions are still on twenty-year-old technology. Also, there's a boom market these days with the restructuring of so many totaliform governments.
NN: Could you explain 'totali'...?
DS: Totaliform. Yes, that's shop talk I'm afraid. We try not to use judgmental language here, especially as we service a wide variety of jurisdictions. It means dictatorships, monarchies, workers' paradises, things like that. We distinguish it from democraform, which is the United States for instance, and anarchiform, which is Lebanon.
NN: So the voting machines are a sideline?
DS: As I said, yes. It's lucrative, though. That product line alone is producing enough revenue to fund all our current research. We have other side-lines as well. One group is products which apply computer technology to tax collection, census taking, law enforcement, and the whole range of bureaucratic requirements. The other group of products is focused on the needs of the individual politician or campaign. Things like signature machines, fundraising letter generators, and we've just launched a poll generator. We can't keep up with the orders on that one.
NN: What is a poll generator?
DS: It's an important cost-saver for any political campaign. We did research on the scientific accuracy of the various political polls that the Parties do and that the news organizations are always making a fuss about. Frankly, we were surprised to find that there is very little validity to them at all. The samples are never large enough to be statistically significant; they don't accurately focus on people who will actually vote, because in this country most people just don't; or they are skewed toward people who have phones, but not jobs, or who don't have anything better to do in the evening than stay home and answer phone surveys. The truth is that people who have the motivation to vote are also likely to have the motivation to at least go to a movie or something.
So we invented a software package which can run on almost any personal computer as long as it has a modem. The user creates their own list of questions, and we feed them information every day over the phone. This way they can generate a new poll every day if they have the need.
NN: And you get the information where?
DS: We have the staff here, and at our manufacturing plant in California, fill out daily questionnaires. They do it on their coffee breaks, and we give them a bonus every quarter. We also conduct random interviews at local night spots here in Pittsburgh. The staff can do that on their own time, and they're more than willing because it's a great way to meet members of the opposite sex.
NN: Isn't that scientifically unsound?
DS: Of course, but it's way better than industry standard.
NN: Don't they usually have announced accuracies of 3 to 4%?
DS: Yea. Which means to within 3 to 4 percent of the people they asked, not of the country, or state, or whatever. With our in-house system we at least have a stable sample population. And with politics you mostly want to find out if people are changing their minds. In our system if my secretary changes her mind on Tuesday it's a visible blip on the charts on Wednesday. You can't get that if you don't call the same people day after day.
NN: And why would customers want daily polling?
DS: Well not all of them do, of course. And they don't publish on a daily basis. But they need trends. What you want to tell the press about is a trend. So say your guy was pulling a pretty steady 35%, but on Tuesday he gets 36%, then it's 35 for a week then you get a day of 38. The PR guy takes an early 35, the 36 and the 38 and sends it to the papers as a hyperbolic trend in favor of his candidate. Then you've got the reporters filling in with explanations of the increasing acceptance; and the killer is that the opponent's people have to come out with a denial of the enemy's polling results. It's never convincing.
NN: Isn't that, well, fraud by selective presentation of data?
DS: Absolutely. It's the essence of political campaigning. Pure industry standard.
NN: I see. But this is still a side-line?
NN: So what exactly is your main thrust?
DS: That would be the machine politician itself.
DS: Well, the sex can be altered to suit.
NN: I see.
DS: It generally isn't of major importance, because the standard machine politician doesn't depend on public approval. Appearances are quite secondary. We've not put much into the packaging. Just the basics.
NN: And those would be?
DS: Speaking ability is important, along with basic mobility. Sitting up, standing, hand gestures, sage nodding, level walking. We've only recently looked at climbing stairs.
NN: Climbing stairs?
DS: Well, again, it's the pretty boys who have to be seen and shake the hands, kiss the babies. Your machine pol doesn't have to do the airport scene, up and down the steps. It's basically a desk job. Even meetings and hearings call for the seated mode.
NN: I'm confused.
DS: It's a confusing area, and we aren't known in the market yet so you wouldn't be familiar with the product.
NN: So what's keeping the, ..ah, the product out of the market?
DS: We're having trouble keeping the IQ low enough, actually. The standard 256K chip we've been using just provides too much memory for the political arena. Now RAM isn't bad in itself, as long as it's totally random, like in a Reagan. But with any kind of operating system at all you get way too much sophistication.
NN: So you mean...
DS: Right. You've got to keep it simple. All you need is Input Analysis, which is contributions or incurred debts of other kinds; and Output Control which converts those factors into votes, contracts, and appointments. It's simple. It's only about 10K of memory. You can get 256K chips for almost nothing these days, which is important. For the consumer the price of a politician has to be low.
NN: So we're talking robots?
DS: Well, not really, because they're not that sophisticated. Even a minimally competent robot can perform a variety of functions. Politicians, on the other hand, are only input/output control devices with some speech simulation capabilities.
NN: Not thought simulation?
DS: Not needed. It generally degrades the efficiency of the product, and reduces customer acceptance. And like I say, that's where we're working out the bugs.
NN: So you're making machines to substitute for politicians?
DS: No, we just do the design. The actual political machines will be built by a sub-contractor. Our plant doesn't have a clothing section, and the movable joints are an off-the-shelf product that our sub-contractor knows better than our people.
NN: Aren't there some Constitutional problems with mechanical representatives?
DS: Maybe. But certainly not for the behind-the-scenes operation; managers and advisors and the like. We had our lawyers checking it out, but our research indicates that any real concern with Constitutionality would be antithetical to the nature of the project. So we dropped it as a concern.
DS: If you look at history you'll see that interpretations of the Constitution have always proven amenable to consumer demand. And we intend to field a superior product. The demand will be there. And the court decisions will follow.
NN: So these things will be able to function in legislatures? Publicly?
DS: Oh, yes. It surprises most people how easily they handle it. It surprised me.
First we discovered that staff preparation is fundamental even for human politicians. Staff does the reading, the research, designs the questions for the most part, arranges most of the votes. Our product handles the deals and votes itself. When it comes to speeches, they're just pre-written, in the tradition of modern politics. Only we use a disk format instead of paper. And it's superior in our case because you don't get the reading errors, Freudian slips, etc.
NN: So when do you expect to be marketing, ah, it?
DS: The 'MP' we call it. Machine Politician. The prototype model is already in the field. We have a couple of units in local and state offices from the 1995 races, and we expect to have about a dozen entries in Congressional races in '96. We've had a couple of nibbles for Senate races, but nothing firm yet.
NN: I can see from the lights on your telephone that you're taking a lot of incoming calls. How's business?
DS: Fantastic. We have a lot of interest overseas for all of our product lines, especially in Eastern Europe where they lack expertise in our field.
NN: So you're already active in that region?
DS: Right. We operate through a licensee: Practical Party Products. They handle all our Eastern Bloc operations. In Japan we have a subsidiary, McPolitics, which will be taking over all of our Asian enterprises. It's our own name in the rest of the world.
NN: Well you certainly have an interesting operation going here.
DS: Thank you. It's just democracy in action.
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