New York City law requires public documents and announcements be made available in a wide range of languages, but the mayor’s computer-assisted pretending raises alarms for some ethics experts.
Katie Honan, The City
Mayor Eric Adams is using artificial intelligence to turn himself into a polyglot: sending out robocalls with his voice to New Yorkers in a slew of languages he does not speak — and spooking out ethics and privacy advocates.
The mayor mentioned his multilingual calls at a press conference Monday announcing the new “MyCity Chatbot,” which uses AI to connect small business owners with city resources.
He unveiled the new technology with Chief Technology Officer Matt Fraser and SBS Commissioner Kevin Kim, showing how the bot can help answer questions like “how do I open a business?”
At the news conference, Adams described himself as a “techie” and former computer programmer, then later said he used the controversial tech on the city’s robocall system — sending out messages in many languages using his voice.
“Conversational AI is amazing, once you put the script in you can put it in any language you want with my voice,” he said.
“We have to be concerned about the abuse of it but we want the proper use.”
When pressed on any ethics concerns about his voice pretending to know many languages, the mayor noted the importance of speaking to all New Yorkers.
“We have to weigh something, we have to weigh that — do we want to reach all New Yorkers who have historically been locked out?” he asked.
“When we went to those hiring halls and I heard people who speak Bengali, when I heard people who speak Urdu, when I heard people who speak Spanish, and said we heard you’re robocall in our language — we are becoming more welcoming by utilizing tech to speak in a multitude of languages.”
A spokesperson for the mayor said they’ve reached more than 4 million New Yorkers through robocalls and sent thousands of calls 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.
But the recordings could pose ethical issues if it makes people believe the mayor is fluent in so many tongues, surveillance and privacy experts said.
“This is deeply unethical, especially on the taxpayer’s dime,” Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn said in a statement. “Using AI to convince New Yorkers that he speaks languages that he doesn’t is deeply Orwellian. Yes, we need announcements in all of New Yorkers’ native languages, but the deep fakes are just a creepy vanity project.”
Annika Marlen Hinze, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said the calls seemed “strangely deceiving.”
“It’s wonderful to make things in as many languages as you can,” she told THE CITY. “But it’s a whole other issue to pretend or insinuate that you are speaking all those languages yourself, and I see serious ethical concerns there for a mayor who does not speak multiple languages.”
Adams has embraced new technologies in his administration, particularly around public safety – from robot dogs used by the police and fire departments to a subway-patrolling “robocop.”
His announcement Monday was centered around the city’s adoption and regulation of artificial intelligence, which includes nearly 40 “actions” aimed at protecting the city and finding ways to responsibly integrate AI within agencies.
Those include: “establish a framework for AI governance that acknowledges the risks of AI, including bias and disparate impact” and “create an external advisory network to consult with stakeholders across sectors around the opportunities and challenges posed by AI.”
Power of Babble
New York City law requires most public agencies to have a “language access coordinator” and provide “telephonic interpretation” in some 100 languages. It also requires important documents and direct services be translated in 10 languages: Arabic, Urdu, French, Polish, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole and Korean.
At times, though, not every agency is compliant with the translation law, as THE CITY reported during COVID vaccine distribution in 2021.
Adams is only fluent in English, and it’s not clear if he’s seriously learning any other language. On his recent trip to South and Central America, he received translation help from Manny Castro, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. And during recent appearances on Spanish-language radio, he also used various staffers to translate.
Despite being one of the most diverse cities in the world, most New York mayors have not been fluent in many languages other than English.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was often ridiculed for his attempts to speak Spanish, including with a parody social media account known as “El Bloombito.” Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, would often try to speak Spanish during his news conferences, and Adams has poked fun at those attempts.
It’s not clear if Rudy Giuiliani spoke any languages other than English. Ed Koch spoke German, which came in handy when he was drafted into World War II.
Perhaps taking the linguistic cake, before being elected as mayor in 1933, Fiorello LaGuardia worked as an interpreter on Ellis Island and spoke several languages, including Italian, French German, Yiddish and Croatian.
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