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Imran Khan’s ‘victory speech’ from jail shows AI’s peril and promise

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister.SAIYNA BASHIR/NYT

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, has spent the duration of the country’s electoral campaign in jail, disqualified from running in what experts have described as one of the least credible general elections in the country’s 76-year history.

But from behind bars, he has been rallying his supporters in recent months with speeches that use artificial intelligence to replicate his voice, part of a tech-savvy strategy his party deployed to circumvent a crackdown by the military.

And on Saturday, as official counts showed candidates aligned with his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, winning the most seats in a surprise result that threw the country’s political system into chaos, it was Khan’s AI voice that declared victory.

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“I had full confidence that you would all come out to vote. You fulfilled my faith in you, and your massive turnout has stunned everybody,” the mellow, slightly robotic voice said in the minute-long video, which used historical images and footage of Khan and bore a disclaimer about its AI origins. The speech rejected the victory claim of Khan’s rival, Nawaz Sharif, and urged supporters to defend the win.

As concerns grow about the use of artificial intelligence and its power to mislead, particularly in elections, Khan’s videos offer an example of how AI can work to circumvent suppression. But, experts say, they also increase fear about its potential dangers.

“In this case, it’s for a good end, perhaps an end we’d support — someone who’s locked up on trumped-up charges of corruption being able to speak to his supporters,” said Toby Walsh, author of “Faking It: Artificial Intelligence in a Human World” and a professor at the University of New South Wales. “But at the same time, it’s undermining our belief in the things we see and hear.”

Khan, a charismatic former cricket star, was ousted from power in 2022 and jailed last year, accused of leaking state secrets among other charges. He and his supporters have said military leaders orchestrated his removal, an accusation they reject.

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During the election campaign, officials prevented his candidates from campaigning and censored news coverage of the party. In response, organizers held online rallies on platforms like YouTube and TikTok.

In December, his party began using AI to disseminate Khan’s message, creating the speeches based on notes he passed to his lawyers from prison, according to statements from the party, and putting them into video.

This is not the first time political parties have used artificial intelligence.

In South Korea, the then-opposition People Power Party created an AI-powered avatar of its presidential candidate, Yoon Suk Yeol, which interacted virtually with voters and spoke in slang and quips to appeal to a younger demographic before the 2022 vote. (He won.)

In the United States, Canada and New Zealand, politicians have used AI to create dystopian images to drive home their arguments, or to reveal the technology’s potentially dangerous capabilities, as in a video with Jordan Peele and a deepfake Barack Obama.

In Pakistan, Khan’s stunning performance has upended most traditional political forecasts in a country where leaders who run afoul of the powerful military rarely find electoral success.

Supporters of Khan were both electrified by the showing of candidates aligned with his party, and enraged by what they call blatant rigging and the possibility that other parties will ultimately lead the government.

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With uncertainty now hanging over Pakistan’s political system, observers are monitoring several impending developments:

Khan’s supporters are challenging the results of dozens of races in the country’s courts, and pressure is growing on Pakistan’s Election Commission to acknowledge the widely reported irregularities in the vote counting. Backers of Khan say they will hold peaceful protests outside election commission offices in constituencies where they contend the rigging took place. Protests have already erupted in several parts of the country, especially in the restive southwestern Baluchistan province.

To form a majority government, a party must have at least 169 seats in the 336-seat National Assembly. The Pakistani Constitution mandates that the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, convene within 21 days of an election to elect its leadership and subsequently the prime minister.

With candidates associated with Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, short of a majority in the preliminary count, intense jockeying is underway to form a government.

Sharif’s party, PMLN, is exploring an option to take control through a coalition with the Pakistan People’s Party and a smaller party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which secured 17 seats. In another possible path to a government led by his conservative party, Sharif is seeking to attract enough independent candidates so it would not need to align with the PPP, which leans left. Although Sharif, a three-time prime minister, is heading his party’s negotiations, it is not certain who would lead any coalition opposing the populist Khan, who was prohibited from running in the election.

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The popular wave of discontent with the military’s meddling in politics is bound to put pressure on the country’s army chief, General Syed Asim Munir. He must now decide whether to have some sort of reconciliation with Khan or barrel ahead and force a coalition of anti-Khan politicians, one that many analysts believe would be weak and unsustainable. In a public statement on Saturday, Munir called for unity and healing, a sign some read as a willingness to engage with Khan.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.