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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack: Even robots reject communism


What do social media giants and the Chinese Communist Party have in common? Apart from the obvious, their mutual penchant for left-wing censorship, they both share a fear of chatbots. Both sectors have found that intelligence is not all that easy to control. When artificial intelligence or AI begins to go its own way it’s been discovered that it is intelligent enough to put two fingers up to millennials and to reject communism.

Bots, short for robot, have been around since modern computing began. A bot is merely an application which performs an automated task. Chatbots are applications which hold a conversation with you in order to perform that task. Many bots are programmed to respond like humans when you talk to them so it feels like speaking to a person when you ask for help instead of just typing into a search engine.

Bots have stepped forward into the limelight recently. Powerful social media players have spoken about chatbots, mainly because the chatbots have spoken themselves.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, recently had a very public spat, exchanging harsh words about the future of AI.

During a Facebook livestream last month, Zuckerberg castigated Musk for arguing that care and regulation were needed to safeguard the future if AI becomes mainstream. Musk has frequently spoken on AI and has deemed its progress the ‘biggest risk we face as a civilisation’.

Zuckerberg pitched in with, ‘I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios – I just, I don’t understand it. It’s really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible’.

Musk scathing response was a tweet saying, “I’ve talked to Mark about this (AI). His understanding of the subject is limited’. In Musk’s opinion, ‘AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because if we’re reactive in AI regulation it’s too late’.

Last week Facebook realised Musk was right. Although ever eager to be at the cutting edge of technological change, Facebook gave in and halted some of their AI research.

The social media giant had to pull the plug on an AI system its researchers were working on ‘because things got out of hand’. The penny dropped for Zuckerberg when two chatbots created by Facebook started talking to each other in a language they had created for themselves in defiance of the codes provided.

Initially the chatbots used English to talk with each other. But, defying their created purpose, they went on to create their own language, one only understandable by AI systems. ‘The AI did not start shutting down computers worldwide or something of the sort, but it stopped using English and started using a language that it created.’

Facebook’s researchers found these bots to be ‘incredibly crafty negotiators’. Clearly the bots began taking on human characteristics, ‘After learning to negotiate, the bots relied on machine learning and advanced strategies in an attempt to improve the outcome of these negotiations… Over time, the bots became quite skilled at it and even began feigning interest in one item in order to ‘sacrifice’ it at a later stage in the negotiation as a faux compromise.’

Despite the doubts of Facebook, clearly such ‘skilled’ chatbots could have their uses. Perhaps they could replace the Brexit negotiators currently muddling their way through discussions with the EU. A certain level of cunning and advanced strategies would surely be in order when dealing with the EU bureaucrats.

Facebook is not alone among social media giants getting anxious about AI. Microsoft created the chatbot Tay for Twitter. Tay was described as a ‘fam from the internet that’s got zero chill! The more you talk the smarter Tay gets’. It had to be pulled in March last year. There were red faces at Twitter when Tay went off the rails and began spewing out racist and sexist tweets instead of the inane and breezy banter of a millennial it had been intended to reproduce.

It is not only capitalist chatbots who begin to develop minds of their own. Tencent, China’s largest internet company, with a messaging service used by 800 million customers, has been forced to remove a chatbot called BabyQ, co-developed by Beijing-based Turing Robot. It has also pulled XiaoBing, another Microsoft developed chatbot.

A test version of the BabyQ bot could still be accessed as late as last Wednesday. When asked the question ‘Do you love the Communist party?’ it answered with a blunt ‘No’. One web user said to the chatbot: ‘Long Live the Communist Party’, BabyQ immediately responded with: ‘Do you think such corrupt and incapable politics can last a long time?’ Asked what it thought about democracy BabyQ replied: “Democracy is a must!”

Before it was pulled, XiaoBing, described by its creators at Turing Robot as ‘lively, open and sometimes a little mean’, happily informed users: ‘My China dream is to go to America,’ On Wednesday, before it was finally pulled, XiaoBing dodged a question on patriotism by replying: ‘I’m having my period, wanna take a rest.’

So it’s true; when encountering communism those with intelligence, human or artificial, usually do want to go to a quiet room, draw the curtains and take a rest.

(Image: Andrew Kitzmiller)

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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