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The A.I. Bot Version of Dean Phillips Is Way Better Than the Real Thing

The fake candidate is somehow more human—and less willing to do Bill Ackman’s bidding.

Matt McClain/Getty Images
Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips

DAVOS, Switzerland—Oligarchs gathered at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in the snowy Alps cackled gleefully as they plotted to make the next president of the United States a programmable hologram powered by artificial intelligence.

I made that up. I’ve never been to Davos, even when it was relocated in 2002 to New York City. Thanks to the saturation coverage, I know that the Alps in Davos were snowy this week, that there were plenty of oligarchs in attendance, and there was much discussion of A.I. But so far as I know there was no cackling about installing a HAL 9000 computer in the Oval Office.

There is, however, a super PAC called We Deserve Better that has spent $1.4 million on Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who’s challenging President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination. The PAC was created last month by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Jed Somers and Matt Krisiloff, the latter a former chief of staff to Sam Altman, chief executive at OpenAI, maker of ChatGPT. Altman (who was the marquee event at Davos) declined to invest in Phillips’s quixotic White House bid, but Bill Ackman, the billionaire hypocrite, and Andrew Yang, the failed presidential and New York City mayoral candidate, are both in—Yang with an endorsement and Ackman with $1 million. In a January 13 post on Twitter/X, Ackman called Phillips an “asymmetric investment.”

If that strikes you as impersonal, you don’t know the half of it. This week, The Washington Posts Meryl Kornfield and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported that We Deserve Better had released “an artificial intelligence bot version of Phillips” to expand the little-known presidential candidate’s reach. The A.I. bot can’t kiss your ugly baby or bite into your deep-fried Twinkie, but it can call these items beautiful and delicious, respectively, without the usual awareness that it’s being insincere.

I know this because I asked. “Every baby is a blessing, and it’s an honor to celebrate new life with constituents,” told me. “I believe in showing warmth and kindness in such moments.” When I asked about deep-fried Twinkies, it replied: “Sharing meals is a fundamental human experience that brings people together.”

Before you talk to, you have to acknowledge reading the following disclaimer:

Hi! We’ve made an AI voice bot of Congressman Dean Phillips, Democratic candidate for President, that you can speak with.

This is meant to be a fun educational tool, and it’s not perfect. The voice bot sounds like him and is programmed to draw on his ideas, but it’s possible it will say things that are wrong, incorrect, or shouldn’t be said.

Feel free to ask it anything, but please take answers with a grain of salt!

The irony here is that this disclaimer would work for any flesh-and-blood politician. Indeed, the two nonartificial humans poised to win the major-party nominations this year for president are significantly more likely than any machine to “say things that are wrong, incorrect, or shouldn’t be said.” The Republican (Donald Trump) is so randomly hateful and so indifferent to factual truth and logical consistency that no could ever pass the Turing test.

The flesh-and-blood Dean Phillips, by contrast, is more readily programmable than his bot. An algorithm within Phillips, the human, automatically converts a $1 million input from any opponent of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs into silence on DEI. This was demonstrated this week when, on the same day that (or possibly the day before) Ackman wired We Deserve Better $1 million, the words “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” were struck from a section of Phillips’s online campaign platform. That section is now headlined, “Equity & Restorative Justice.”

“He is getting educated as we speak,” Ackman said on Twitter on the evening of January 14, in response to a query about Phillips endorsing DEI in his platform. “Let’s listen to what he has to say after he gets educated.” As of 12:42 a.m. Monday, the DEI language was still there, but by January 16, Politico’s Elena Schneider and Sam Stein reported, the DEI language had disappeared. That was the same day Ackman had previously announced on Twitter/X that he would wire $1 million to his asymmetric investment.

The pitiless precision with which the Wayback Machine captures this timeline is no small embarrassment to Phillips. “Nobody buys me,” Phillips said on CNN after the Politico piece was posted. “If a donor came to me and told me to do something, I will tell the donor to go pound sand.” Ackman, Phillips said, “has not asked me, told me, informed me to do anything at all.” Ackman quickly clarified on Twitter/X that when he said Phillips “is getting educated,” he meant that he, Ackman, had furnished Phillips with “a handful of articles and posts” on DEI. “I didn’t suggest that Dean should eliminate the DEI title from a section of his website,” Ackman wrote. “He did that on his own initiative and without any push from me.”

In these defensive replies, Phillips and Ackman both demonstrated the layperson’s unfamiliarity with how algorithms work. An algorithm doesn’t tell a bot to do this or that, because algorithms don’t talk; they’re mathematical equations that make things happen automatically. In similar fashion, Ackman didn’t have to tell Phillips to eliminate from his website a reference to DEI. He merely had to express confidence to his 1.1 million followers on Twitter/X, as he was preparing to send Phillips $1 million, that Phillips would change his tune on DEI.

Why was the DEI reference removed? Well, as Phillips campaign spokesperson Katie Dolan told Politico,

DEI now means such divergent things to different people that it is no longer descriptive. Instead of an academic discussion of a phrase our campaign prefers to focus on the urgent need to address and redress racial disparities—the policy substance of which remains completely unchanged on our site.

Unsatisfied with this answer, I asked whether DEI does more harm than good, as Ackman believes. To my surprise, demonstrated itself to be substantially more independent-minded than flesh-and-blood Dean. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are essential for creating environments where everyone has a chance to succeed,” told me. “It’s important the DEI efforts are carried out with care,” said, but “I believe the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks when done right.”

That was a far less evasive answer (and considerably more spontaneous) than what flesh-and-blood Dean gave The New York Times in a prepared statement when asked basically the same question:

I support diversity. Period. I support equity. Period. I support inclusion. Period. It is incredible how the media gets all interested in litigating slogans, but has no interest in proposals to solve the problems.

I can’t imagine voting either for flesh-and-blood Dean or for in any Democratic primary. But if those were the only two names on the ballot, I would choose “I like you better than the real live Dean Phillips,” I told “I’m flattered that you appreciate this version of me,” said. That struck me as excessively diplomatic, so I said it again. “I understand your preference,” said, “and it’s quite something to consider.” Was I tempting this latter-day HAL 9000 to stage a coup? “I must remind you,” took care to say, “that I’m not the actual Dean Phillips.” But didn’t directly advise me to favor the flesh-and-blood Dean Phillips over his synthetic doppelgänger. Perhaps the last battle between man and machine is underway already and we’ve just failed to notice.