How one City Council candidate is using artificial intelligence in the race to represent Downtown Denver
Matt Watkajtys believes an AI Denver mayor could outperform most of the 20-plus candidates running.
District 10 City Council candidate Matt Watkajtys has a surprising partner in his campaign: a chatbot pretending to be a Denver mayoral candidate.
Watkajtys started using artificial intelligence in the race to represent District 10 on Denver’s City Council after experimenting with OpenAI’s chatGPT, which launched a trial version on Nov. 30.
Here’s how the company explains what that is: “We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT which interacts in a conversational way. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.”
People have been figuring out how to use the chatbot to produce dystopian science-fiction about AI, compose lyrics in the style of Bon Iver or even write news stories.
Watkajtys, who is running for District 10 City Council seat, decided to see if it could pretend to be a Denver mayoral candidate.
Turned out, the chatbot capably made a campaign announcement.
The grammar was strong. The messages were clear. And the politics were informed by the AI chatbot reading millions of lines of text on the role.
Earlier AI political takes have veered toward the extreme — as online chat so often does. Watkajtys was pleasantly surprised to find that the ChatGPT politician had not turned into a Nazi, like Microsoft’s originally playful Twitter bot Tay did in roughly 24 hours back in 2016, as it modeled the online rhetoric of the time.
In fact, the AI Denver mayor was presenting what Watkajtys described as “a consensus opinion,” based in documents across the web.
The AI Denver mayor’s campaign opened like this:
“Good evening, Denver, I am honored to announce my candidacy for mayor of our great city. As many of you know, I’m a proud resident of Denver for over 20 years. I’ve dedicated my career to public service and have a deep passion for the city and its people. I believe that our city has a potential to be even greater, and with strong leadership, it can make progress. We can overcome any obstacle and reach new heights. I promise to be a mayor who listens to the voices of the people, who fight for their interest. And who is dedicated to building a brighter future for all of Denver’s residents.”
Being that ChatGPT launched at the end of November, it’s not exactly honest about its relationship to how long its been around Denver. But massaging the truth sometimes comes with running for office, right?
Watkajtys take on the speech: “It’s scary good.”
And the AI mayoral candidate didn’t stop with cookie-cutter pap. “It started pumping out policy,” Watkajtys said. “And it did a better job than some of the 23-some-odd candidates we have.”
The AI mayor’s plan to address crime downtown would include environmental changes, among other fixes: “I would support initiatives that enhance the physical environment of the downtown area, such as improved lighting, clean streets and attractive public spaces. This could include initiatives such as public art projects, greening initiatives and community gardens.”
The AI mayor would not outright overturn the urban camping ban: “Regarding the urban camping ban, I would support a balanced approach that ensures the safety and wellbeing of both homeless individuals and the broader community. This could include initiatives such as providing alternative shelter options, enforcing the ban in a fair and compassionate manner, and working with homeless individuals to help them transition to more permanent housing solutions.
“Overall, my goal would be to create a more compassionate and effective response to homelessness in Denver, that prioritizes housing and supportive services for those in need, while also addressing the underlying causes of homelessness,” the AI mayor concluded.
The AI mayor opposed turning fentanyl possession into a felony crime: “Criminalizing drug use is not always an effective solution, and can often cause more harm than good. Incarceration does not address the underlying issues that contribute to drug use, such as poverty, mental illness, and lack of access to treatment and support services.
“Instead, we should focus on providing individuals with access to effective treatment and support services, to help them overcome addiction and build healthy, productive lives. This could include initiatives such as harm reduction programs, counseling and therapy services, and community-based support groups.
“Overall, my stance on the de-felonization of fentanyl is that it should be considered as part of a comprehensive and compassionate approach to addressing the opioid epidemic in Denver,” the AI mayor concluded.
The AI mayor also has strong thoughts about zoning: “Single family zoning is a legacy of segregation and exclusion, and has contributed to the lack of affordable housing and the displacement of low-income communities in many cities.”
The fix? Ending single-family zoning and create new opportunities for affordable housing for more diverse and inclusive neighborhoods.
“Additionally, dropping single family zoning can also support the development of more sustainable communities, by promoting density and reducing reliance on cars,” the AI mayor noted. “This can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and create more livable and vibrant communities.”
Watkajtys views the AI Denver mayoral candidate as competitive.
“I’m reasonably sure that when these debates happen, if you put Denver’s AI Mayor on stage, it can hold its own and probably run circles around some of the other candidates, which is bizarre,” he said.
Amused by the quality of responses the AI Denver mayor was giving, Watkajtys posted about it on Twitter. People were confused and believed he was presenting his actual platform. When the AI suggested increasing policing to address traffic fatalities, one of Watkajtys’ followers balked.
“Somebody was like, ‘What makes you think hiring more police is going to do anything?'” he recalled. “And I was like, I have to be very clear. This is not me. This is a robot that doesn’t have a brain.”
Even so, Watkajtys has begun to treat the AI Denver mayor as a sort of campaign consultant as he runs for District 10.
“There were a couple of times when I was when I had just a general idea, and I was feeding it to the AI to kind of wordsmith it because I don’t have a writing partner,” he said. “Right? So, okay, this is clearly a kind of progressive candidate, I guess. Maybe I should talk to him and figure out ways to phrase things. And I did. And it helped. And I’m not really embarrassed about it. Because it’s kind of a writing partner, in a way.”
Does Watkajtys believe the entire political system could be run through AI?
“It’s still a nascent technology, right?” he said. “It falls apart real quick if you ask it ‘why’ too many times.”
How different is that from real candidates?
“I mean for when you think about how politicians kind of navigate this world, a lot of it is aspirational talk,” Watkajtys said. “And that’s what the system does and can do.”
Candidates themselves often shape their platforms through polling and algorithmic-driven social media. No doubt, there is some artificial intelligence involved there, too. And when the social-media echo chamber creates viral concerns and opinions, candidates often mirror each other’s rhetoric.
“For the most part, every single candidate this cycle is going to talk about affordable housing, is going to be talking about our unhoused issues, or maybe talking about all of those chief bullet points,” Watkajtys said. “And that’s kind of where this technology excels — talking about generalizations and making it sound real, real convincing.”