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How to protect elections in the age of AI

How to protect elections in the age of AI

Half of the world’s population will have the chance to head to the polls this year in dozens of critical elections worldwide. These votes, which will shape policy and democracy for years to come, come amid light-speed development in artificial intelligence. As Eurasia Group noted in its 2024 Top Risk entitled “Ungoverned AI,” generative AI could be used by domestic and foreign actors – we’re looking at you, Russia – to impact campaigns and undermine trust in democracy.

To meet the moment, GZERO Media, on the ground at the 2024 Munich Security Conference, held a Global Stage discussion on Feb. 17 entitled “Protecting Elections in the Age of AI.” We spoke with Brad Smith, vice chair and president of Microsoft; Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media; Fiona Hill, senior fellow for the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings; Eva Maydell, an EU parliamentarian and a lead negotiator of the EU Chips Act and Artificial Intelligence Act; Kersti Kaljulaid, the former president of Estonia; with European correspondent Maria Tadeo moderating. The program also featured interviews with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, and Benedikt Franke, CEO and vice-chair of the Munich Security Conference. These thought leaders and experts discussed the implications of the rapid rise of AI amid this historic election year.

The group started by delving into what Bremmer has referred to as the “Voldemort” of years surrounding elections, to look at how election interference and disinformation have evolved since 2016.

“This is the year that people have been very concerned about, but have kind of hoped that they could push off. It's not just because there are elections all over the world and trust in institutions is deteriorating, it's also because the most powerful country in the world, and it's not becoming less powerful, is also one of the most politically dysfunctional,” says Bremmer, referring to the US.

The 2024 US presidential election “is maximally distrust-laden,” says Bremmer, adding that it’s “really hard to have a free and fair election in the US that all of its population” believes is legitimate.

And the worry is that AI could complicate the landscape even further.

Hill agreed that there’s cause for concern but underscored that people should not “panic” to a point where they’re “paralyzed” and “not taking action.”

“Panic is not an option given the stakes,” says Hill, adding, “There are negative aspects of all of this, but there's also the kind of question that we have to grapple with is how when legitimate competitors or opposition movements that otherwise beleaguered decide to use AI tools, that then also has an impact.”

There’s no doubt that AI can be used for nefarious purposes. Deepfakes can fool even the most discerning eye. Disinformation has already been rampant across the internet in recent election cycles and helped sow major divisions in many countries well before AI tools — far more sophisticated than your average meme — were widely available.

“With new tools and products that use generative AI, including from a company like ours, somebody can create a very realistic video, audio, or image. Just think about the different ways it can be used. Somebody can use it and they can make a video of themself, and they can make clear in the video that this is AI generated. That is one way a political candidate, even one who is in prison can speak,” says Smith, alluding to ex-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent use of AI from behind bars.

Along these lines, there are many serious, valid concerns about the impact AI can have on elections and democracy more generally — particularly at a time when people are exhibiting rising levels of distrust in key institutions.

“It's very important to acknowledge a lot of the important developments that AI and emerging tech can bring to support our economic development,” says Maydell, adding, “but in the same time, especially this year, we need to be very sober about some of those threats that are in a way threatening the very fabric of our democratic societies.

As Maydell noted, this evolving new technology can be harnessed for good and bad. Can AI be used as a tool to protect candidates and the integrity of the electoral process?

A number of major tech companies, including Microsoft, signed an accord at the Munich Security Conference on Friday to help thwart and combat AI-related election interference.

“It's all about trying to put ourselves in a position, not to solve this problem completely, I don't think that's possible, but to manage this new reality in a way that will make a difference,” says Smith. The Microsoft president says the accord brings the tech sector together to preserve the authenticity of content, including by working to detect deepfakes and providing candidates with a mechanism to report any that are created about them.

“We'll work together to promote transparency and public education. This clearly is going to require a lot of work with civil society, with others around the world to help the public be ready,” says Smith.

But is enough being done?

“It's good that both politicians and the companies and society as a whole now has a better understanding where this is all leading us and we are collectively taking actions,” says Kaljulaid, but this is just a “first step” and “next steps need to follow.”

A balance will need to be found between legislating the challenges presented by AI and giving tech companies space to collaborate, innovate and address problems on their own.

“Democracy is always in jeopardy. Every generation has to answer the call to defend it,” says Smith, adding, “Now it's our turn. It's our turn as a generation of people to say that technology always changes, but democracy is a value that we hold timeless. So let's do what it takes to defend it, to preserve and promote it.”

The livestream was part of the Global Stage series, produced by GZERO in partnership with Microsoft. These discussions convene heads of state, business leaders, and technology experts from around the world for critical debate about the geopolitical and technology trends shaping our world.

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