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Election officials worry about the potential use of AI to spread misinformation

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For the upcoming 2024 elections, the state of Arizona is using artificial intelligence to head off interference from artificial intelligence. The state became a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the last general election. So Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, is leading the efforts to curb AI-manufactured deceptions by testing some worst-case Election Day scenarios.

ADRIAN FONTES: For example, a polling place might catch on fire or phone lines might go down. And so what we do is we are really testing how it is that our elections officials, emergency responders, law enforcement, intelligence gatherers and all of the sort - state, federal and local - will act and work together in case of any weird situations that might happen during our election cycle.

MARTÍNEZ: The tests used generative AI to fake the voices of the Secretary of State and others in his office who gave their consent. One recreation, Fontes says, was especially impressive.

FONTES: They took a special recording of that person and then they put it in through some proprietary AI software, and they had this individual almost dead to rights. And they had this person speaking in German fluently and speaking in Mandarin Chinese fluently, and it was as if this person was actually speaking those languages. So this was kind of, sort of a reveal for elections officials and all of our partners in county government here in Arizona.

MARTÍNEZ: I asked Fontes about vigilance in the run up to November's elections.

FONTES: The bottom line is this, AI is not all terrible. There are tons of benefits to it, but it's the stuff we need to be careful of that we're training for. And really what it comes down to is the basics. If we are following basic process, basic protocol, basic procedures, double checking whenever something happens before making major decisions regarding our operations or sharing information, we're going to be in pretty good shape coming into what could be a hostile environment.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you feel that most people believe that they are smart enough or savvy enough to be able to tell the difference, and then are completely wrong?

FONTES: Well, I don't know what most people think. All I know is it was impressive to me and the technology is improving at a really, really fast pace. You know, six to 12 months ago, you would have been able to tell pretty easily that some of the generative AI deepfakes were deepfakes. Now it's much more difficult, particularly when it's voice only.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, so many people believe the American voting system is corrupt. How do you persuade voters that what they do at the polls, that their vote is accurately recorded and that elections aren't rigged or stolen?

FONTES: Well, I think it's a basic dispelling of mythologies and basic lesson learning. Look, over the last several years, the United States of America has been experiencing a slow-rolling civics lesson. We've learned a lot about how some of the inner workings of our government behave. The election administration has been sort of this dark hole, right? It's been Byzantine. People just didn't understand how technologically advanced, how many checks and balances and how completely dependable the systems can be when they're properly run. And I would argue that the vast majority of our systems in the United States, if not all of them, are properly run.

Convincing people is going to take time. You know, the lies, the misinformation and disinformation, these are anti-American activities that we're just dealing with, right? And we will get past them. The conduct of elections will not only be seen as that basic government function that we've always been able to depend on again. But also, I hope that, you know, the federal government and state governments across the United States will sustainably fund these activities, because right now, election administration is the only critical infrastructure in the country that does not have sustained federal funding. And that's a problem that we're going to have to deal with real soon.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, it feels like the AI genie is way, way out of the bottle. Secretary, if we were having this conversation, say, 20, 30 years from now (laughter) when it comes to elections, I mean, what kind of conversations do you think we're going to be having?

FONTES: Well, who knows, in 20 or 30 years where we're going to be. But, you know, the bottom line is that we still have to deal with what we're dealing with now. We still have to convince people of the reality, right? And it's unfortunate that we have to kind of, like, campaign our way to the truth. For example, in Arizona, there's no such thing as a voting machine. Every ballot is cast on paper. That's been true for a very, very long time, and yet these mythologies pop up all over the place. And the sad thing is you've got elected officials and people who are running for office who are still peddling these lies. They're grifting. They're just not serious people.

We know there's no evidence of widespread fraud. We know there's no evidence of undependability or major issues in any of our election systems in the country. We all know this. Serious people know this. And so I think folks who are invested in our economy, invested in arts and culture, invested in sciences, invested in technology and everything else, they understand that elections administration is the golden thread. I'm really hoping that our better angels will help us to understand that the administration of elections in the United States of America has and will continue to be accountable, secure. We can keep making it more open and more free for more citizens to participate. And that's really the goal here. We just got to keep our nose to the grindstone, be solid in our work, and I think eventually folks will come around.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes. Thanks a lot.

FONTES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVAN STRAUSS' "STARTING TO SMILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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