Photo: Gaelen Morse/Getty Images
Dean Phillips bounded onto a stage crowded with seemingly bored college students at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday, five days before the first-in-the-nation primary, and after thanking former presidential candidate Andrew Yang for introducing him, he declared, “I will be the first AI president in American history!”
While the mind reels at the possibilities — a machine in place of a president in the Oval Office, utilizing the inputs of the previous 45 inhabitants to run the country — what Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is trying to do is defeat Joe Biden, whom he trails in state polls by anywhere from 30 to 60 points. His quixotic effort is focusing almost all of its attention on New Hampshire, a state that will not be awarding any delegates.
“Men in their 80s, frankly, even good men and good women, are not in a position to anticipate and prepare us for the future,” Phillips told the crowd, adding that the world had a century to prepare for climate change and still did nothing. “With AI, my friends, we have months, if not just a couple of years at most” for what he said will be “the most transformative technology in human history.”
In recent days, the Phillips campaign has been derailed by the revelation that he deleted parts of his website devoted to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” at the behest of Bill Ackman, a hedge-fund billionaire who has given $1 million to Phillips’s super-PAC. Ackman, who has been in the news in recent weeks for his efforts to remove Claudine Gay as president of Harvard, all but bragged about his ability to dictate what policies Phillips pushes, writing on X that the three-term congressman “didn’t understand what DEI was when that was made part of his website” and that “he is getting educated as we speak. Let’s listen to what he has to say after he gets educated.”
And now some critics of Phillips see his newfound interest in AI also coming from his campaign donors. He hadn’t been seen as much of a warrior on the issue of artificial intelligence or even particularly interested in ideas around technology during his time in Congress. He is not a member of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus or the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He did not discuss the issue when he gave an extended interview launching his campaign on CBS News. But he has assiduously courted the AI industry’s money since declaring his candidacy, hosting a number of phone calls with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, whom Phillips called “a source of great counsel, ideation, and perspective.”
In November, just as the Biden administration was rolling out an executive order to develop standards for the AI industry, Altman invited Phillips to his home, according to Puck News. Weeks later, a super-PAC led by Matt Krisiloff — an early employee of OpenAI who is said to have once dated Altman — formed to help Phillips and has so far spent over $600,000 to boost him over Biden. Ackman has also donated to the PAC, which now holds $4 million, according to the Washington Post.
Not long after, Phillips warned against overregulating AI. During a December presidential forum in New Hampshire dedicated to cryptocurrency, he said, “We should make sure we don’t stifle innovation, that we don’t stifle decentralization when it is thoughtful and supportive of our national interest,” adding, “and that’s true in crypto as it should be in AI.” He also promised to put forward a task force to examine issues around AI and to create a federal “Department of AI.”
“I come from a Congress in which I’m a youthful guy, if you can imagine that. We have very few people who even understand it. And if you do not understand it, all you want to do is regulate it. I want to be the leader of AI,” he said on Thursday.
Phillips came to Congress as a campaign-finance reformer warning about the role of big money in politics. Yang told me he met Phillips at an event promoting a constitutional amendment that would limit the amount of money campaigns would be able to spend, where, Yang said, Phillips lamented that he was unable to make close relationships with his colleagues in Congress because they were too often at fundraisers in the evenings.
But now some of those reformers say Phillips has turned his back on his prior commitments.
“When Dean Phillips first ran for Congress and vowed to take on the corrosive influence of big money in politics, we were proud to be one of his earliest backers,” said Jonas Edwards-Jenks, communications director at End Citizens United, which tries to get big money out of politics. “Now he’s done a complete 180 and is twisting himself in pretzels with strange artificial-intelligence proposals to try to secure billionaire backers for his super-PAC. Unfortunately for him, neither these billionaires nor AI can resurrect his flailing campaign.”
In response, Katie Dolan, a spokesperson for the Phillips campaign, said if his critics “were really good-government types, they’d also be working to create legislation around AI. Was the E.U. pandering to donors when it passed the E.U. AI Act? Australia is planning to regulate high-risk AI. The Biden administration has an executive order out on it. We are proposing policies for the 21st century, and those policies must include AI. It’s an issue we cannot afford to ignore.”
Yang also defended Phillips, saying he is appealing to tech executives “because they are very concerned that Joe Biden is going to lose to Donald Trump.” Plus, he added with a laugh, “Dean is 54 years old, so he is more savvy towards technology than someone who has maybe never used email.”