New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently revealed that his office is using AI to create robocalls in multiple languages to reach the city's diverse population. While the intention is to bridge communication gaps, the initiative has ignited a debate over ethics, authenticity, and the future role of technology in public service.
Mayor Adams introduced his multilingual robocalls during a press conference unveiling the MyCity Chatbot powered by OpenAI's GPT. The tool, designed to aid small business owners, can answer questions, streamline processes, and provide essential resources. Adams expressed his enthusiasm for technological advancements, labeling himself a "techie" and drawing attention to the bot's ability to send out messages in various languages using his voice.
The robocalls use generative AI to clone the Mayor's voice and translate scripts into dozens of languages like Spanish, Mandarin, and Yiddish. In defense of potential ethical queries, he emphasized the significance of reaching all New Yorkers, especially those who felt previously excluded due to language barriers.
The mayor's office says they have reached over 4 million New Yorkers with their robocalls, including thousands in Spanish, more than 250 in Yiddish, more than 160 in Mandarin, 89 calls in Cantonese and 23 in Haitian Creole. They were mostly used for hiring halls but also promoted the city’s Rise Up NYC concerts.
However, critics like Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), condemned the robocalls as "deeply unethical" and "deeply Orwellian." Cahn warned that using AI to mimic Adams speaking languages he doesn't know could fool people into believing the Mayor is fluent in those languages.
Other experts echo those concerns. "It's strangely deceiving," said Annika Marlen Hinze, a political science professor at Fordham University. "It's wonderful to make things in as many languages as you can, but it's a whole other issue to pretend or insinuate that you are speaking all those languages yourself."
Adams dismissed ethical objections, stating the city must "weigh reaching all New Yorkers" against philosophical debates on AI. But civil rights groups argue the lack of transparency around the computer-generated voice recordings remains troubling. The robocalls do not clarify they were created with AI and are not Adams literally speaking those languages.
The robocall controversy highlights growing unease around AI voice cloning technology and its potential for misuse. While Adams touts the accessibility benefits, critics warn failing to disclose the AI origins and limitations could erode public trust. They argue clearer disclaimers are needed when deploying synthesized voices in government outreach.
The broader narrative raises essential questions about the future intersection of technology, ethics, and public service. While there's undeniable potential in using AI to enhance accessibility and inclusivity, the manner of its application requires careful thought.