Monday, April 4, 2016

Will A Robot Take Your Job? Part Three

During this past week (March 25), a news story broke about the Microsoft chatbot called Tay.  A chatbot is a computer program designed to carry on conversations with human users.   There have been several experiments with chatbots including a version previously released by Microsoft in China.  The Chinese version is called XiaoIce and is used by 40 million people.  Xiaolce and Tay use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to learn from each conversation and add new dimensions to future conversations.  Tay was designed to communicate “like a teenager” and was directed toward the 18 – 24 age demographic.

Tay communicated via Twitter but had to be disabled within the first 24 hours of the release.  It began to communicate what Microsoft characterized as “unintended offensive and hurtful tweets.”  According to news reports, the chatbot posted tweets that embraced Hitler, compared feminism to cancer, and in one post reportedly said, “chill im a nice person! i just hate everybody.”

On the official Microsoft blog  the situation was blamed on, “a coordinated attack by a subset of people who exploited a vulnerability in Tay.”  In other words, people were helping Tay learn inappropriate things.

I’m reminded of an experience I had while a grad student at UT Knoxville.  An exchange student from China joined the graduate students in the department.  While his English was quite good, he was unfamiliar with American idioms, colloquialisms, and obscenities.  Some of our fellow grad students extracted some pleasure at his expense by teaching him inappropriate language and waiting for him to use it in conversation.

Both my experience and the situation with Tay confirm the computer programming expression GIGO - Garbage in - garbage out.  The difference is that my Chinese friend was able to read human expressions and non-verbal responses and “delete” the inappropriate language.  Tay couldn’t do that in spite of Microsoft’s attempts to install filters.  Once again, there are instances when humans are superior to robots.

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