If the world's recent experience with "Tay," Microsoft's AI-enabled chatbot that was turned into a Holocaust-denying racist within hours of her release on Twitter, should have taught us anything, it's that Donald Trump is the world's most-successful AI experiment at trolling the entire American political system.
How you feel about this revelation depends on whether you find Trump's increasingly bizarre antics comic or menacing (if you take them cereal…well…). But there's no question that conversation, debate, or discussion with Trump is in fundamental ways pointless. From his perspective at least, the only goal is to keep the conversation going as long as it possibly can, and in directions he prefers.
Consider this Tweet from Trump that came out yesterday, coupled with his performance at last night's CNN Townhall.
Why is this reporter touching me as I leave news conference? What is in her hand?? pic.twitter.com/HQB8dl0fhn
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2016
The not-at-all mysterious or sinister object in the hand of former Breitbart.com staffer Michelle Fields is pretty obviously a pen (as Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown has pointed out).
When asked last night about whether he should can Corey Lewandowski, his thuggish campaign manager who has also been filmed apparently pulling the collar of a protester at a different event, here was Trump's response:
"It would be so easy for me to terminate this man, ruin his life, ruin his family…and say you are fired. I have fired many people, especially on 'The Apprentice,'" Trump told moderator Anderson Cooper. "The problem is everybody dumps people when there is a sign of political incorrectness."
After CNN showed the 21st-century equivalent of the Zapruder film in super-slow motion for the thousandth time, Trump also polled the audience, at one point even asking only the women to respond. Come on, did anything happen?" he said, starting to sound Seinfeld's Jack Klompus pushing "an astronaut pen" on Jerry in an early episode. She said she was yanked down hard! She didn't fall! She's changing her story. Needless to say, the crowd was with him.
One of the reasons Trump draws the attention of critics and fans alike is not simply what he says but how he says it. In the exchange with CNN's Anderson Cooper quoted above, Trump neither fully engages nor deflects the question in the ways we're accustomed to see in politicians. He doesn't blow it off, the way pols always do when they don't want to answer something specifically, and he never launches into pre-scripted, pre-rehearsed lines the way Marco Rubio did so notoriously in one of the debates and the way that Ted Cruz seems to every time he opens his mouth (whether it's scripted or not).
Instead, like an AI bot, Trump ingests the question and spews out something semantically related but not quite on topic—suddenly, we've gone from talking about a potential assault by his campaign manager to a discussion of Trump's signature line from a canceled reality show and a humblebrag about how he's actually taking the hard road by not firing Lewandowski. While we're still processing all that, Trump has started the terms of the next exchange, which is now about political correctness and how most politicians (and others) dump their loyal staff at the first hint of trouble.
This isn't conversation or even debate. It's AI chatter, where a bot's main goal isn't to actually have a meaningful discussion about anything or even dispense information. It's to see whether humans can be fooled by computer-generated talk and to see how long it can be kept going until we get bored or the back-and-forth falters due to lack of a next topic of conversation. On these scores, at least, Trump is the greatest triumph yet of AI.
This dynamic is related to but distinct from what Dilbert creator Scott Adams identified as Trump's ability to fire off "linguistic kill shots," or words and phrases that end or change a debate decisively. Back in October, Adams told Reason that he sees in Trump's rhetoric and delivery evidence of "a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion." What do you think?