New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been using artificial intelligence to make robocalls that distort his voice into several languages he doesn’t actually speak, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
The watchdog group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project is among those calling Adams’ use of AI misleading and unethical. The report comes just a day after Adams and New York Chief Technology Officer Matthew Fraser released the New York City Artificial Intelligence Action Plan, which outlines the administration’s plans to use AI in city government responsibly.
“While AI has the potential to improve services and processes across our government, we must also be mindful of its associated risks,” Adams said in a letter about the plan. “With the release of our AI Action Plan, we are cementing our commitment to this emerging technology’s responsible use, and ensuring we are deploying the right tools in the right ways.”
“First of its kind” for any major U.S. city, according to the mayor’s office, the 51-page plan also creates an external advisory council to explore the risks of A.I. tools and develop responsible use cases, similar to the task forces that have been established by dozens of states and other cities across the country.
The revelation that the Adams’ administration is already using generative AI before the council can issue recommendations on responsible use cases poses new ethical questions about the government’s use of the rapidly evolving technology — questions the mayor addressed in a press briefing Wednesday morning.
“Listen, artificial intelligence is here,” Adams said Wednesday. “You cannot be afraid of technology because of the abusiveness of it, and that is what I have shared over and over again, and it’s up to lawmakers to determine how to restrict the abuse of it. Always.”
The mayor told reporters about the robocalls in a separate press briefing on Monday and said they’re being used to promote city hiring events. The AP reported that AI’s being used to generate the mayor’s voice in five additional languages: Spanish, Yiddish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Haitian Creole. The calls, so far, have not included a disclosure that Adams only speaks English or that the calls were generated using AI.
“Since March 2022, we’ve reached almost 4 million New Yorkers through robocalls,” a spokesperson from the mayor’s office told StateScoop in an email. “This includes over 5,000 calls in Spanish, over 250 in Yiddish, over 160 in Mandarin, 89 in Cantonese, and 23 in Haitian Creole.”
While the city’s plan acknowledges the ethical risks of using AI, including bias, the mayor downplayed his recent use of AI.
“All tools could be used or abused. A gun is a tool. It could be used. It could be abused. A knife is a tool. It could be used. It could be abused,” the mayor said during Wednesday’s press briefing. “I hear it throughout my streets in this city that, ‘I don’t feel that government communicates to me in the language that I speak.’ We found a way to properly use artificial intelligence to do that.”
The watchdog group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project rebuffed Adams’ justification for the robocalls as an unethical use of artificial intelligence that is misleading to city residents.
“The mayor is making deep fakes of himself,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the organization, told the Associated Press. “This is deeply unethical, especially on the taxpayer’s dime. Using AI to convince New Yorkers that he speaks languages that he doesn’t is outright Orwellian. Yes, we need announcements in all of New Yorkers’ native languages, but the deep fakes are just a creepy vanity project.”
Adams also indicated that his administration is exploring further use cases for AI-generated robocalls or chatbots in the city’s 311 system, a use case also being explored by many other cities and emergency management agencies around the country.
“We’re looking at technology now when you call 311, it automatically translates the person’s voice into English and when the 311 caller speaks back to that person, it automatically identifies their language and translates it back to them” Mr. Adams said in the Wednesday briefing. “Can you imagine the power of that? Not having to wait for someone to translate in a 311 emergency call? AI is here, brother.”