Oy Tay, our little AIs need better parenting

Thanks to a recent foray by Microsoft into that dark part of humanity’s forest where live The Trolls, last week served up a stark lesson in how to build an AI bot with help from the community on whom the bot’s personality is based. In fact, Bot Tay has taught us lessons, plural: first, as Microsoft watched their Little Red Riding Hood bot wander into the Internet forest and appear less than 24 hours later gibbering like some red-eyed Nazi Godzilla, the company acquired a greater sensitivity to context. And second, the rest of us have more respect now for the ethical deliberations that will be necessary in building AIs that don’t turn on their creators. Yes: inoculate AIs with controlled doses of Trolls’ Disease but don’t let them believe that Trolls R Us.

Of the tsunami of web commentary inspired by the chastening of Microsoft, two of the best articles appeared in The Daily Beast, irreverent as ever – the poor innocent bot “was never told that just one robot cigarette can lead to robot heroin addiction, and it cost her her stupid robot life”; and in Forbes, which made the same sort of point in a somewhat more circumspect way. Street smarts is about more than bits of data, and emotional intelligence will find its equivalent in machine learning when the bots can accrue impressions from their early experiences of deceit, ignorance, venality and hypocrisy and explain what this means in the context of the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Tay was thrown to the wolves. “Her” human equivalent will have been inoculated against the terrors of the dark forest by a thousand bedtime stories finished off with a thousand hugs, and each night the light of reason left on in the hall outside. And as any of us who have participated in that ancient ritual will know, even then . . .

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