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Politics & Policy

This Silicon Valley candidate is using freakishly smart AI bots to call voters

It has its kinks to work out—but is impressive in its ability to handle complex questions about the candidate.

Illustration of people with robotic helmets at computers; an American flag in the background.
A congressional race in the South Bay is using AI technology to interact with voters. | Source: Illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

At around 8 o'clock Monday morning, I received a call and heard a voice that sounded a bit like Apple's Siri. It told me it was an artificial intelligence caller from the campaign of Peter Dixon, a candidate in a Silicon Valley congressional race.

For the next 10 minutes, I had a completely automated—yet eerily human—conversation with an AI phone-banker who sounded female, maybe between 30 and 35 years old, cheery and upbeat. "She" began by telling me everything from Dixon's past as a former U.S. Marine and his involvement in the tech industry to why he's the best candidate for California's 16th district, which covers parts of the South Bay and San Mateo County.

Dixon is the first congressional candidate in California to use AI phone-banking from Civox, a London-based company that promises to deliver "voice interaction with artificial intelligence technology, on behalf of political campaigns that feel like you're talking to an actual person."

I asked the Civox bot the basic questions: Why is Dixon running? Does Dixon care about issues like housing, income inequality and the environment? What does Dixon think about Donald Trump? What about abortion?

A smiling man with curly hair outdoors, trees with autumn leaves blurred in the background.
Congressional candidate Peter Dixon's campaign is using an artificial intelligence phone-banking service from Civox. | Source: Courtesy Peter Dixon Campaign

It gave me what you'd expect from a typical Democratic candidate running in California—though the answers almost always came down to being conciliatory. Dixon disagrees with many of Trump's policies, the AI said, but he's always trying to work across the aisle and have respectful dialogue.

'Peter Dixon has no plans to take away anyone's coffee'

The first thing you'll notice when you talk with the AI is that it isn't like those annoying automated calls when you deal with health insurance, which will lead you to scream your Social Security number into the receiver after it gets it wrong for the sixth time.

No, this picked up every single word correctly throughout the entire call.

I wanted to throw the robot some curveballs, since this is when things break down with an AI. But to my surprise, the service was surprisingly resilient to my confusing questions and even could handle me interrupting it.

I heard the Democrats are trying to destroy the use of cars, I told it. I heard the congressional candidate is trying to take away my right to drink a cup of coffee. "I understand your concern, but rest assured, Peter Dixon has no plans to take away anyone's coffee," it told me. "In fact, understanding the importance of daily routines and small pleasures like morning coffee is part of his approach to policy focusing on improving quality of life while addressing broader issues. Enjoying a cup of coffee is certainly safe with Peter Dixon."

I told the AI I was worried that the candidate had a history of spending long nights playing soccer (a completely made up past-time for Dixon) and I was concerned about how all this soccer-playing was impacting his ability to successfully govern.

The bot responded that there's no record of soccer impacting Dixon's responsibilities—and it even told me his military service had prepared him for high-stakes environments.

There were a few small hiccups during the call. It would sometimes take long pauses, making me think the AI had fizzed out. It also still felt a bit like one of those automated help desk calls you get because the voice still sounded computerized. But the bottom line is: It was the most natural phone call I've ever had with a computer.

Shortly after the demo, I spoke with Ilya Mouzykantskii, the CEO of Civox, which launched last year. A Stanford graduate, Mouzykantskii disclosed that he has worked with two other political campaigns, one in Ohio and another in Pennsylvania, but wouldn't offer the names of any other clients.

Man with long hair in a black suit and white shirt, hands clasped in front, against a white background.
Ilya Mouzykantskii is CEO of Civox, which has created an artificial intelligence tool for political campaign phone-banking. | Source: Courtesy Ilya Mouzykantskii

The technology works like other commonly used AI tools like ChatGPT, which utilizes a large language model, or LLM. Civox has political campaigns fill out a lengthy questionnaire about the candidate, which is then inputted into the company's AI model.

Dixon's campaign began shooting calls out this past weekend and has already reached thousands of recipients, campaign spokesperson Taylor Hebble said, though both she and Mouzykantskii declined to offer data on the performance of that outreach.

"I feel like this is the first election cycle of the AI era," he told me. "And AI is inevitably going to be a part of the campaign repertoire."

The future of campaigning?

There's certainly an argument to be made from a cost perspective. A single AI robocall costs somewhere between five and 15 cents, whereas real human canvassers run about $1.25 to $1.50 per dial, according to Mouzykantskii. (Those figures were confirmed by longtime San Francisco political consultant Jim Ross.) Mouzykantskii says it can offer prices "much closer" to the robocall cost but wouldn't go into specifics.

Like any conversation about AI, however, this one inevitably touches some ethical third rails. Surely someone could weaponize the technology and make fake calls impersonating a candidate's campaign. When asked how his company was dealing with these issues, Mouzykantskii said Civox doesn't allow deceit and even cryptically shared that he's turned down attempts from potential clients trying to impersonate another individual.

He maintains that his technology is within the ethical boundaries because it states at the top of the phone call that it is an AI—but Mouzykantskii wouldn't say definitively whether this will always be the policy as the company takes on more clients. (At the moment, recipients of the Dixon calls have received texts that allow them to opt in to chat with the bot.)

While the system works pretty seamlessly, it may still not be solving a key challenge faced by political campaigns: simply getting voters to answer the call. My call with the bot came from a local 650 area code, which made it appear more legitimate. But political consultant Ross says he remains skeptical over the technology's effectiveness.

"I think they'll have the same challenge that ordinary phone-bankers have," said Ross. "They didn’t solve the real problem. The real problem is not connecting with people; it’s getting people to pick up the phone. If they can solve that, then that’s groundbreaking."