WASHINGTON -- As other Republican presidential candidates answered questions during Wednesday's debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson sought to give potential voters the opportunity to press him -- or at least a simulated version of him -- about his platform and specific issues.
Hutchinson's campaign on Wednesday launched an online interface allowing voters to ask questions, with an artificial intelligence chatbot responding using guidance from the candidate's past comments and actions.
The Ask Asa AI interface went live in the hours leading up to the presidential debate. Hutchinson -- who qualified for the first debate -- failed to make the second event as the Republican National Committee set higher thresholds regarding donations and polling.
"It is vitally important for every voter to be able to have an answer to their question and not simply rely on a moderator to hopefully ask it for them," Hutchinson, the candidate, said Wednesday in a statement. "That is why I am excited to unveil our Ask Asa platform this afternoon. This tool will allow voters to ask questions on their most important issues and get a response back from me."
According to the campaign, the artificial intelligence interface was designed with consideration of Hutchinson's past statements, speeches, interviews and policy positions, allowing the system to generate realistic answers. The former governor requested the platform amid a growing presence and interest in artificial intelligence.
In response to a question from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, the Hutchinson bot said developers and engineers "utilized their expertise in computer science to build this software from the ground up" to ensure the software is "user-friendly, efficient, and secure."
"In summary, the creation of this software involved a collaborative effort from a skilled team of professionals who utilized their expertise in computer science to design, develop, and refine the software," the Hutchinson bot said. "Their dedication and commitment have resulted in a high-quality product that we are proud to offer."
The bot is capable of explaining Hutchinson's background; in one answer regarding how the former governor's family views him, the bot described Hutchinson as a "dedicated family man" and mentioned his wife Susan, four children and seven grandchildren. In the same answer, the bot described Hutchinson's background in public service, which began as a U.S. attorney and continued to eight years as governor.
When asked about how Congress could avoid a government shutdown when the current fiscal year ends Saturday, the Hutchinson bot described the matter as a "critical issue that requires immediate attention and decisive action from our federal lawmakers." The bot urged federal lawmakers to prioritize public needs and address "underlying issues that often lead to these budgetary standoffs," noting changes to the national tax code.
"In order to address the pending threat of a government shutdown, federal lawmakers must demonstrate leadership, put aside partisan politics, and work towards a solution that serves the best interests of the American people," the bot said. "It is only through collaboration and a commitment to finding common ground that we can avoid the detrimental consequences of a government shutdown."
In a separate question, the Hutchinson bot blamed the looming shutdown on the "deep divisions and partisan gridlock that have plagued our political system."
According to the bot, Hutchinson is interested in studying artificial intelligence before implementing any regulations on technology. The bot said the federal government should invest in "comprehensive research and development programs focus on AI" and encourage the development of technologies that "prioritize privacy, security and transparency."
The bot will respond to questions unrelated to Hutchinson's presidential campaign, but the answers attempt to refocus the user on the former governor's positions and political experience. For instance, when asked about Hutchinson's favorite member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- the fictional group of crime-fighting anthropomorphic turtles -- the bot said it wanted to talk about something of "greater importance -- the future of our great nation."
"Rather than discussing my favorite member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I would love to hear your thoughts on the challenges our country is currently facing," the bot added.
Andrew Dowdle, a University of Arkansas professor whose studies involve the presidency and national politics, acknowledged the bot as an innovative tool capable of explaining Hutchinson's positions, but he questioned its potential impact.
"How do you end up generating enough interest in terms of people being willing to go to the site?" he asked.
Hutchinson has struggled to gain momentum in the month since the first presidential debate in Milwaukee. His average polling numbers in national surveys remain below 1%.
The presidential campaign bot limits the number of questions before it requests a user sign up to join Team Asa, which requires a submission including contact information. The bot will also eventually ask for a donation.
"It kind of limits the willingness of people to use the tool," Dowdle said.
"It's really good in terms of things where he's had experience and in terms of major issues of the day, but there are limits in terms of the kinds of questions you're going to be able to generate responses to. For some people, that might be a turnoff."
Hutchinson was the only candidate who made the Aug. 23 debate stage not to qualify for Wednesday's debate. The Hutchinson bot said the former governor was "eagerly looking forward to watching Wednesday's debate."
"While missing a debate can be a setback, it does not define the entire campaign," the bot said in a another response. "Asa understands the importance of engaging with the American people and sharing his vision for the future. He will continue to actively participate in campaign events, town halls, and public forums to ensure that his message reaches as many voters as possible."
After the Republican National Committee on Monday confirmed Hutchinson failed to qualify for the debate, the candidate issued a statement promising to remain committed to the White House bid. The former governor said he is working to increase polling in an early primary state to 4% by Thanksgiving, believing if he reaches this mark, he will "remain competitive and in contention for either Caucus Day or Primary Day."