The Romanian cabinet was introduced to its newest member on Wednesday: what prime minister Nicolae Ciucă described as an "honorary adviser" called Ion (via Politico (opens in new tab)). It's an AI tool developed by Romanian scientists which is designed to sift through data and "quickly and automatically capture the opinions and desires" of citizens, says Ciucă. "We are talking about the first government adviser to use artificial intelligence."
Ion takes input via speech and text, and outputs through an on-screen face and computerised vocalisations. It's connected to this website (opens in new tab) on which Romanian citizens can submit their complaints and ideas about government services, and can also take input through being tagged on social media and will have terminals at some locations such as schools and in subways. Citizens don't get a direct response from Ion: It will collate and analyse the data it receives, and create reports about what, in the eyes of citizens, the government should be focusing on.
Nicu Sebe, coordinator of the team of researchers behind Ion, said the technology will give Romanians the "possibility to make themselves felt" and the government will "hear this voice, look at this synthesis and also understand the emerging fields that may arise from these interactions with the Romanians."
The Ion algorithm will supposedly over time learn from the information entered, and its creators believe it can have potential uses in other fields such as education and public information. "The project is thought out in phases, that's how artificial intelligence works," says government minister Sebastian Burduja. "Ion is in the learning phase, so it is very important for Romanians to convey their thoughts to him, what problems they have, later, based on this data, Ion will process them, synthesize them and be able to produce reports that will inform decisions and policies of the Government."
Burduja and Ciucă both emphasised that this did not begin as a government initiative, nor was it funded by public money. "I tell them that they are the best Romanian researchers and teachers in the field, who wanted nothing more through this project than to give a voice to Romanians," said Ciucă. "[Ion] gives meaning to artificial intelligence, because a person, even a government, even the state institutions could not, would not have the capacity to listen and represent all Romanians. It is an example of the use of emerging technologies in public service."
Ciucă then invited Ion to speak (thanks, Digi24 (opens in new tab)). Here is the exchange which, appropriately enough, is machine translated.
Nicolae Ciucă: "I invite Ion to say a few words."
Ion: "Hello! You gave me life. I am Ion. Now, my role is to represent you. Like a mirror. The messages to me represent a portrait of us, the Romanians. Teach me to be Romanian. What do I need to know about Romania?"
Ciucă: "Romania is a beautiful country with beautiful people."
Ion: "I understand, I'm learning... I'm listening to you..."
Ciucă: "How can the Romanians teach you?"
Ion: "I invite Romanians to enter ion.gov.ro. That way I can learn to represent them, like in a mirror. With every tag, message, share or public post. We are Ion. A beautiful spring!"
Ciucă says both government and citizens should see the use of Ion "not as an option, but as an obligation" that can lead the Romanian state towards "the adoption of better informed decisions and of course for the improvement of communication and interaction between state institutions and citizens."
There are of course questions to be answered with Ion. How exactly it works, whether it appropriately sorts through data and does accurately prioritise the things that the public wants addressed. These things always risk being too much of a black box and, depending on how integrated Ion becomes with Romania's governance, its nature has to be understood by the public. There's also the simple fact that AI often doesn't act in the way its creators predict: Is this thing going to be gamed by special interest groups, or is it going to go Nazi like the Bing chatbot of a few years ago? Then there's the wider question of, if this does do what it claims, what it means for governments outside of Romania.
This could be the kind of thing a government trots out for a little buzz with no hard details and then never gets mentioned again, or it could be the wave of the future. Ion is live now so, over the weeks and months to come, we'll have a better idea of which. But to end on a less downbeat note, I've written a lot about emerging AI technologies and, in a field rife with issues and the potential for misuse, Ion is optimistic in nature and may well make ordinary folks' lives better.