Artificial Intelligence will be a major issue in next election – Senator Malcolm Byrne

Published on: 31 July 2023

 Senator Malcolm Byrne has stated that one of the biggest issues in the next General and European Elections will be Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its convergence with other emerging technologies.
He has stated that for the newly established independent Electoral Commission, its biggest challenge will not be around the administration of those elections but around protecting their integrity.
Senator Byrne pointed out that AI is changing virtually every element of society and has consequent policy implications, but it also has the potential to shape the elections themselves.
He said,
“We trust our democratic processes but where doubt emerges, the electorate will view those elements with suspicion. After questions arose around the use of electronic voting machines in 2002, it would be a very brave or foolish politician or civil servant that would suggest their use over two decades later even though the technology is this area has developed dramatically.
“Elections next year and beyond will see the increased deployment of misinformation and disinformation, as well as deep fakes (false but realistic images or videos of people or events designed by AI), designed to shape and distort political debate here. The sources of these efforts to influence thinking and results will include States that are hostile to Ireland or aspects of Irish policy, but also domestic and international political campaigns, and potentially candidates and political parties here.”
The Fianna Fáil Senator stated that the biggest cyberattack on a health service emanated from Russia when the HSE was attacked in 2021 and he predicts that the final cost of that action will run to over half a billion euro as well as the impact it had on tens of thousands of patients.
“Think about the potential effects of a major cyberattack during an election campaign, whether against a political party, some critical infrastructure or a media outlet.”
He pointed to how Cambridge Analytica effectively exploited data to influence the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 and there is evidence of efforts of Russian interference online in recent American elections. It is vital that tech companies work closely with our regulators to ensure that there are not similar efforts to affect Irish electoral contests.
“Political campaigns will also change. We are going to see political messaging, speeches and even manifestoes shaped by greater levels of data analysis and the use of large language models. Artificial Intelligence simply spots patterns and when it can sequence large volumes of data, it can make predictions that far exceed even the most advanced human capabilities. If AI can analyse the data of particular sets of voters, why not use it to hone messages that will directly appeal to those voters’ concerns? And what if the AI is trained on data that is inherently biased, what outputs might we see in targeted campaigning or in decision making?”
When Joe Biden announced that he was running for re-election for US President, the Republican National Committee responded with an AI designed ad simulating what life would be like under his second term. 
Senator Byrne said,
“We place so much trust in what we can actually see and hear. But deep fakes have now developed to such levels of quality that it is possible for large numbers of voters to be deceived. Human speech can now easily be subjected to AI distortion. What if an effective deep fake video of one of our political leaders was released in the final days or hours of an election campaign where he or she uttered controversial views that could shape the result? In our era of trial by social media, where there is no campaigning moratorium nor rules generally, the video would likely be shared thousands of times before the truth could challenge it, and even then, many would not accept that it was a lie.
“There will be enormous challenges for the Electoral Commission and for other regulators such as the Data Protection Commissioner and the Media Commission. They will be called on to intervene where technology is being used or perceived to be used to distort messages. Will I have the right as a candidate not to have my image or voice distorted or simulated without my permission? What consequences are there for those that do?”
He has called for public commitments by all parties and candidates not to use deepfakes and not to misuse AI in their campaigns.
“And all of this before we even have the political and ethical debates around how and when and where Artificial Intelligence should be used. The European Union’s AI Act will be the most significant piece of legislation this decade. It is an effort to balance important European values of privacy and freedom while still encouraging innovation. We need global treaties on the appropriate use of AI and emerging technologies. We should have a special Oireachtas Committee holding public hearings on AI and a whole of government approach in how we respond as a society. Our education system needs to be reoriented to focus on its ethical use and we will all need to become more digitally and media literate.
“Artificial Intelligence will transform our lives in ways we cannot imagine. Our democracy and democratic systems need to be ready.”
Senator Byrne is the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.