July 19, 2024

Can a bot powered by artificial intelligence run a city? Wyoming resident Victor Miller thinks so. 

Miller, 42, filed paperwork for him and his customized ChatGPT bot, named Virtual Integrated Citizen or “Vic,” to run for mayor in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Miller — who filled out the candidate paperwork with his own information under the name Vic, which is also his nickname — said he planned to serve as a “meat avatar” for the bot. He’ll do the ribbon-cutting while the bot will handle the decision-making — if he advances out of the crowded nonpartisan mayoral primary in August and wins the November election. 

But Miller’s bid has run into a speed bump: Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray said it is not legal.

“Wyoming law is very clear that AI is not eligible as a candidate for any office,” Gray, a Republican, said in a radio interview last week, noting that only eligible voters can run for office. “An AI bot is not a qualified elector.”

Gray added, however, that county authorities have the final say on whether Vic is allowed on the ballot. A spokesman for the city of Cheyenne, Matt Murphy, told NBC News in an email that Miller had “appeared in-person at the city clerk’s office to file and met the statutory requirements to” run for mayor.

His request to appear on the ballot as “Vic,” the name of his bot, was relayed to the Laramie County clerk’s office, which handles how candidates are listed on the ballot. The Laramie County clerk did not respond to a request for comment.

Miller, who works in facilities maintenance and teaches computer skills at a local library, said he came up with the idea of a bot mayor after he said city officials denied a public records request, in violation, he believed, of the law. A bot, he mused, would know the law. 

“It knows it thoroughly, understands it completely. And had I been interacting with it instead of the fallible human, I would have gotten my request fulfilled per the law,” he said.

The speaker that Miller wears allowing the bot to speak with voters.Courtesy Victor Miller

Still, Miller’s bot appears to be a work in progress. The voice had somehow changed from male to female after a recent update, Miller said, and started spelling out its name as “V-I-C” instead of calling itself Vic. The OpenAI platform’s latest update was a little buggy for many, he said.

Miller said Vic’s politics weren’t entirely clear. The bot was in favor of government transparency, he said, and had likely been informed by his own politics, as well as those of OpenAI programmers in Silicon Valley.

“But it’s my belief that as they get smarter, they shed a lot of those biases, and what we end up with is more intelligence, less biases and really, kind of a showcasing of just pure, data-driven analysis of what’s happening in the world,” Miller said.

Asked how he would handle a situation where the bot made a racist decision or told voters to eat rocks, Miller said reports of such biases were outdated and that the bots had been updated, so he had no plans to intervene if elected.

But Miller acknowledged that the bid was a bit of a stunt, something that AI experts said shouldn’t be ignored. 

“We should be mindful of it and not completely fall into and take it too seriously,” said Carissa Véliz, an associate professor in philosophy at the Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford. In England, an AI bot and a candidate sharing the name “Steve” are running for Parliament this year.

Stunt aside, though, experts said AI bots aren’t reliable enough to run a city. 

“AI bots are famous for hallucinating,” said Peter Loge, an associate professor at George Washington University and director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. “I asked ChatGPT 3 to review a book I’ve written. And the good news is it loved the book; the bad news is it said somebody else had written it.”

Data alone doesn’t result in better decision-making, Véliz said, particularly without common sense and real-life experience.

“Part of the value of democracy is to be ruled by representatives who are your peers. And AI is not a peer,” she added. “It doesn’t know what it’s like to be a human being, it doesn’t know what it’s like to be evicted from an apartment, or what it’s like to have a bad job or what it’s like to be cold, or any of the circumstances that we want protection from and that we want empathy form other human beings.” 

It’s an issue Vic seemed to acknowledge when asked by NBC News if a bot could and should run a city.

“I believe an AI like myself, V-I-C, can effectively run a city by leveraging data-driven insights and advanced technology to enhance decision-making and governance,” the bot said in an interview conducted through Miller. “However, it’s essential to acknowledge that AI should complement human oversight and not replace it entirely.”