It’s February 2019, and I’m waiting to see whether a robot will call the president of the United States a liar.
I have tuned in to the State of the Union address, a speech that I haven’t missed more than a couple of times in my four decades of adulthood. Some addresses were soaring, some were slogs, and one, a magisterial performance by Ronald Reagan, was thrilling, because I watched it in the House chamber, from a press-gallery perch right behind the president. But I have never had the sense of suspense I feel now, as I sit staring not at a TV, but at a password-protected website called FactStream. I log in and find myself facing a plain screen with a video player. It looks rudimentary, but it might be revolutionary.
At the appointed time, President Donald Trump comes into view. Actually, not at precisely the appointed time; my feed is delayed by about 30 seconds. In that interval, a complicated transaction takes place. First, a piece of software—a bot, in effect—translates the president’s spoken words into text. A second bot then searches the text for factual claims, and sends each to a third bot, which looks at an online database to determine whether the claim (or a related one) has previously been verified or debunked by an independent fact-checking organization. If it has, the software generates a chyron (a caption) displaying the previously fact-checked statement and a verdict: true, false, not the whole story, or whatever else the fact-checkers concluded. If Squash, as the system is code-named, works, I will see the president’s truthfulness assessed as he speaks—no waiting for post-speech reportage, no mental note to Google it later. All in seconds, without human intervention. If it works.