BUCHAREST -- Amid much fanfare and boasting of a global first, Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca unveiled Ion, his new political adviser powered by artificial intelligence (AI), at a cabinet meeting on March 1.
Taking the form of a full-length mirror, ION spoke in a deep, calm voice as blue text scrolled across the reflective screen. According to Ciuca, Ion -- or John in English -- will be able to collect information from social networks and citizens' direct input to inform the government 'in real time of Romanians' proposals and wishes.'
But since its launch last week, Romania's AI adviser has already become the butt of jokes -- and has been accused of using an image without permission. The prime minister's new helper also raises ethical questions about the collection and use of data.
Created by a volunteer group of Romanian academics and industry experts, Ion will analyze the data it receives to give politicians a better idea of the concerns and priorities of Romanian citizens. According to a government document, the information will be used to guide state policy decisions.
However, representatives from the city hall in Ciugud, which is one of the most digitalized municipalities in Romania, complained that the government's promotion of Ion was using an image of a local school without permission.
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'Dear Ion, first of all,' staff of the city hall in central Romania wrote on Facebook, 'we recommend that you study Romanian legislation and GDPR regulations,' referring to an EU-wide law on data protection and privacy, 'so that you will not be accused of unjustly appropriating the work of others.'
Ion -- or perhaps its sentient handlers -- was quick to apologize -- although it appeared that human, rather than artificial intelligence, was to blame: 'Dear people from Ciugud Town Hall, I, Ion, do not (yet) make videos. I am assisted by a team of volunteers who have worked tirelessly to make this project happen.... I apologize for the situation created. I have [taken down] the image in question, and I promise you that I have learned from this experience.'
The ethical questions about Ion go beyond the improper use of photos. Romanians can interact with Ion through ion.gov.ro, a sleek website that proclaims, 'We are Ion' and 'Ion represents you like a mirror.' Users share their concerns, supposedly with the government, by entering text into a box. Shortly after its launch, Ion's website reportedly crashed but was quickly fixed.
Romanians can also tweet or send direct messages to Ion through Facebook and Instagram. In case they're worried about their messages disappearing into a void, Ion reassures users, saying, 'I represent you. I will be present at government meetings on your behalf.' Ciuca has said his new honorary adviser will serve as a sort of cyber-ombudsman and give a 'voice to Romanians.'
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What exactly Ion will do with all those voices is what experts are concerned with, however. According to its creators, Ion is still in a learning phase, collecting masses of information, but questions remain as to how that information will be processed and what will happen to the personal data of those who share their views.
Speaking to Politico, Kris Shrishak, a technology fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the way Ion prioritizes messages 'should be explained to the public' and users should be cautious about the technology.
Experts contacted by RFE/RL's Romanian Service said many questions remained about how Ion was processing information and said they had asked for clarification from its developers. They were hesitant to speak on the record about the platform's potential flaws before they had more information.
Ethical questions aside, many Romanians are skeptical and, in a country where corruption is deeply entrenched, have been quick to joke about the new AI tool.
'The Ion robot settled in very quickly in the government. He has already granted himself a special pension, just today rigged four tenders from the PNRR (Romania's Recovery and Resilience Plan), announced that he would build 28 regional hospitals, and during the night he calls the coffee machines on the ground floor and invites them out on dates,' quipped one Facebook user.
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'Now, Ion is playing Solitaire and Minesweeper with officials from the ministry. After he studies hard, he will be ready to take charge of the government,' said another Facebook commenter.
Romanians' skepticism is understandable with political instability and corruption often the rule rather than the exception. In Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index from 2022, Romania was among the most corrupt countries in the EU. In November of that year, however, the European Commission acknowledged the progress Romania had made 'through new legislation, policies, and tools to strengthen the judiciary and combat corruption' and said the country had met commitments made when it joined the EU.
Despite the minor hiccups, Research, Innovation, and Digitalization Minister Sebastian Burduja said in a Facebook post that he believes Ion had a successful world premiere.
'Over 150,000 Romanians have accessed the ion.gov.ro project website,' he said, 'and over 300 researchers have registered as volunteers in the project.' The platform is managed by the Research, Innovation, and Digitalization Ministry, with Romanian technology and AI companies taking a leading role.
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Romania has a vibrant and highly skilled tech sector, sometimes known as the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe. In terms of numbers of IT specialists, Romania ranks No. 1 in Europe and sixth in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration. Home to many international technology companies, including Amazon, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, a recent study found that Romania's IT sector generated 9 billion euros ($9.6 billion) in 2022.
At its unveiling, Ciuca invited Ion to say a few words. 'Hello! You gave me life,' Ion obediently responded. 'The messages to me represent a portrait of us, the Romanians. Teach me to be Romanian. What do I need to know about Romania?'
The answers might not always be ones that Romanian politicians want to hear. 'It would be nice if Ion was prime minister and he took Ciuca to be his robot,' joked one Facebook user.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036