The vote to leave the European Union on 23 June was a surprise result for many, but the ability of the campaign to convert undecided voters in the final weeks was not luck but an unprecedented use of artificial intelligence to target specific voters with a message that resonated with them.

The benefit of having two leave campaigns, the official Vote Leave and the Nigel Farage-led Leave.EU, meant that those wishing to convince the public to vote out could simultaneously promote two opposing futures at the same time. One group promoted the idea that a future outside the EU would be a libertarian paradise with fewer regulations where businesses could thrive, while the other described a future with an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, where social security would receive heavy investment and workers’ rights protected.

Everyone has their own motives for casting their ballot, and to convince voters to take a jump into the unknown and vote Leave, campaigners needed to find out which future most appealed to them – and this is where big data and artificial intelligence (AI) came into their own.

According to a report in the Guardian, billionaire financier Robert Mercer, who helped bankroll Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, “directed his data analytics firm to provide expert advice to the Leave campaign on how to target swing voters via Facebook – a donation of services that was not declared to the electoral commission”.

The Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica more than $6m (£4.8m) to target swing voters in the US election, but Andy Wigmore, communications director of Leave.eu, said the person friendship between Mercer and Farage meant that the Leave campaign was offered the firm’s help for free.

Cambridge Analytica’s technology harvests public data from people’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media profiles and uses advanced machine learning to “spread” through their personal networks. The Leave campaign used this profiling information for over a million individuals alongside artificial intelligence to target specific undecided voters to push their campaign over the finishing line in June. Leave.EU founder and financial backer Arron Banks made it clear in a series of tweets that “AI won it for Leave”.

AI technology has started to come of age in recent years. In May 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue famously defeated reigning world champion Garry Kasparov, and as computers have become ever more powerful, they can now comfortably beat humans in complex casino games with more imperfect information, as Carnegie Mellon-developed Libratus recently proved.

Computers are complex systems beyond the heavy “number crunchers” of old, with the technology already starting to replace drivers and many more jobs are likely to be lost to automation in the near future. Now it is clear that it is not only jobs, but democracy that is at risk from the advent of AI, it is about time we had a conversation about the role we want for technology in our future.

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