On a recent Sunday afternoon, 65-year-old Pennsylvania resident Bill Krenz received a phone call from an unknown number. “Hello, my name is Ashley, and I’m an artificial intelligence volunteer for Shamaine Daniels’ run for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 10th district, chatting to you on a recorded line,” the robotic voice explained. It followed up by asking him questions about whether he was aware of Daniels’ congressional campaign and what socio-political issues are most important to him.
While he was expecting it as part of a test demo, Krenz said he typically doesn’t accept “blind calls” coming from numbers without a caller ID. “If I wasn’t prepared for the phone call, I’m not sure I would have taken the call because it’s such a new technology,” he told Forbes. But after taking the call, which lasted two minutes, he found that the AI answered most questions accurately. “I was expecting maybe a goof, but there were no goofs,” Krenz said.
The call was commissioned by Democratic candidate Shamaine Daniels, who announced her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives for 2024 and is up against six other democratic candidates and Republican incumbent Scott Perry. While Daniels is using standard campaign strategies like digital advertising, direct mail and door-to-door campaigning, she’s also tacking on a new one: conversational calls using AI. She thinks such outreach could help her convey essential campaign information and also hear from voters about the issues that are most important to them.
“If we were to do just a regular robocall or survey poll, the responses we’ll get are very one dimensional. There is no ability to get any texture to the feedback,” Daniels told Forbes. “This gives us an opportunity to get robust information and drive the conversation.”
Over the weekend, thousands of such calls were made by political AI calling startup Civox on behalf of Daniels’ campaign. Cofounded by Ilya Mouzykantskii and Adam Reis in September 2023, Civox used a combination of over 20 different open source AI models as well as licensed technology to build its political campaign AI, Ashley. The technology underlying the Civox’s AI was sourced from AI startup Conversation Labs, which was founded by Reis. The company declined to disclose what data its AI models are trained on.
Political figures across the horizon are beginning to embrace generative AI tools. As part of his now suspended 2024 presidential bid, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez created an AI chatbot clone that can answer people’s questions. In October 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams used AI to make robocalls in his own voice in languages that he doesn’t speak without disclosing the trick, raising questions about transparency. With people using generative AI to make audio deepfakes of political figures and produce negative ad campaigns, deploying tools like Civox for vanilla campaign purposes could be tricky when it comes to public perception of AI.
To address concerns around data privacy and toxic content AI sometimes generates, a few guardrails have been built in. While voters’ calls with Civox’s AI are recorded and can be used to further train it, the company says voters’ personal identifiable information is anonymized. If a conversation strays off topic or becomes abusive, the AI politely ends the call.
Daniels, a first generation Venezuelan immigrant and former immigration attorney, is among first political candidates to use generative AI calling tools to have conversations with voters about her campaign. By using AI that can speak to voters in 20 different languages, she strives to reach a diverse voter base that includes immigrants and non-native English speakers. Daniels also plans to use her experience with AI to help tailor legislation should she be elected.
“If I’m the first one to deploy tools that rely on AI in the electoral process, I can help figure out what policies and regulations are useful and valuable and also train the electorate in recognizing what ethical AI use in campaigning looks like,“ she said.
Deciding which voters the AI would call was based on information from democratic voter database provider NGPVan, pulled from official records at the Pennsylvania Department of State. “To target voters, we will be relying on that information because that tells us how people are registered, when they registered, how often they vote etc,” said Joe Bachman, Daniels’ campaign manager.
Krenz, the Pennsylvanian who chatted with Ashley, said the experience didn’t do much for him. He was undecided about who to vote for before the AI called him — and still is. “I think the AI talked more than I talked,” he said. But he does wonder if AI might be useful for Daniels’ campaign in other ways. “I think AI might help Shamaine figure out what the biggest issues are and then she could campaign on them. But just because Shamaine has an AI, that doesn’t impress me enough to vote for her.”