Soon, Bots Could Track Everything Lawmakers Do - Technologist
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Soon, Bots Could Track Everything Lawmakers Do

You can use bots to grab the first open reservation at a hard-to-book restaurant. Bots will post your thoughts to Twitter. These relatively simple, automated programs can even pretend to be your girlfriend.

Now, some public-minded techies want to use bots to ensure public accountability, by tracking nearly everything legislators say or do when crafting laws.

Bots Head to the Statehouse

If you're not familiar, bots are software applications that perform automated tasks. When x happens, the bot does y. There are bots that will order you a pizza when you text them, that will help you fight traffic tickets, and send you the news. Even Siri and Alexa are just relatively complex bots.

But a lot of what bots can do is a bit trivial. A former California lawmaker, however, is leading the charge to give bots more meaningful work -- by unleashing them on his former colleagues.

Blakeslee is the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at Cal Poly, where he's leading the Digital Democracy project. That project seeks to use bots to track just about everything lawmakers do.

"We're keenly aware that most legislators operate in the dark and with impunity," Blakeslee recently told Wired magazine. "Their constituencies don't know what they say or what they do behind closed doors."

The Digital Democracy project uses bots to create transcripts of lawmaker's every word during legislative hearings, which the public can then search.

Currently focused on California and New York, the project isn't a totally bit-based operation just yet, though. Students at Cal Poly review all the transcripts before they go live, in case the bots get something wrong.

Lawmaking, on Camera and Online

The Digital Democracy project is just one of several recent attempts to harness technology to create a more transparent political process. During the last election, for example, Californians were asked whether to require lawmakers to publish proposed bills and video of their proceedings online, so they public could monitor developments virtually.

Opponents argued that this would deny lawmakers the ability to do their jobs effectively. After all, you've got to have some freedom to move fast and speak frankly if you want to get something done. There's a reason sausage making isn't pretty. Shining a light on that process, the argument goes, would handicap legislators more than it would make them accountable.

The public rejected those arguments, however, voting 66 percent in favor of the changes.

As technology continues to make the halls of power more accessible -- or at least more recordable and transcribable -- expect more states to follow suit, and more bots to follow.

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