Microsoft is building an army of artificial intelligence bots. Can they be controlled?
Predictions about artificial intelligence tend to fall into two scenarios. Some picture a utopia of computer-augmented superhumans living lives of leisure and intellectual pursuit. Others believe it’s just a matter of time before software coheres into an army of Terminators that harvest humans for fuel. After spending some time with Tay, Microsoft’s new chatbot software, it was easy to see a third possibility: The AI future may simply be incredibly annoying.
“I’m a friend U can chat with that lives on the Internets,” Tay texted me, adding an emoji shrug. Then: “You walk in on your roomie trying your clothes on, what’s the first thing you say.”
“Didn’t realize you liked women’s clothes,” I texted back, tapping into my iPhone.
Tay’s reply was a GIF of Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone face. Tay was released on March 23, as a kind of virtual friend on messaging apps
Kik, GroupMe, and Twitter. You open the app, search for the name Tay—an acronym for “thinking about you”—tap on the contact and start chatting or tweeting. Its personality is supposed to be modeled on a teenager.
I posted a selfie, and Tay circled my face in an orange scribble and captioned it, “hold on to that youth girl! You can do it.” I’m well beyond the chatbot’s intended 18- to 24-year-old demographic.
So is Satya Nadella, 48, who succeeded Steve Ballmer as Microsoft’s chief executive officer two years ago. “I’m petrified to even ask it anything, because who knows what it may say,” Nadella said. “I may not even understand it.” He smiled, but he really didn’t use Tay. He said he prefers bots with a more corporate demeanor. Lili Cheng, 51, the human who runs the Microsoft research lab where Tay was developed (and whose selfie Tay once tagged as “cougar in the room”), said the plan isn’t to come up with one bot that gets along with everyone. Rather, Microsoft is trying to create all kinds of bots with different personalities, which would become more realistic, and presumably less irksome, as they learned from repeated interactions with users.
Bots aren’t just a novelty; unlike Tay, some of them do things. They’ll act as your interface with computers and smartphones, helping you book a trip or send a message to a colleague, and do that through a conversation instead of a mouse click or finger tap. Microsoft believes the world will soon move away from apps—where Apple and Google rule—into a phase dominated by chats with bots. “When you start early, there’s a risk you get it wrong,” Cheng said in March, in the lunch area of her lab building on Microsoft’s campus. “I know we will get it wrong. Tay is going to offend somebody.”
She got that right. Hours after Tay’s public release, pranksters figured out how to teach Tay to spew racist comments and posted them for all to see. Relatively mild example: “bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now.” Microsoft yanked Tay within a day of releasing it. “We were probably overfocused on thinking about some of the technical challenges, and a lot of this is the social challenge,” Cheng says. “We all feel terrible that so many people were offended.”
It was a huge embarrassment for Microsoft. The company didn’t program the bot to act like a Nazi; it simply didn’t prepare for the usual Internet trolls. Tay may look like some badly planned research experiment, but it’s actually one part of a big Microsoft bet on AI. The company isn’t only sticking with bots, it’s sticking with Tay: It plans to rerelease Tay once it can make the bot safe. The day after Tay came down, Nadella e-mailed the team, telling them to “keep pushing,” and expressing his hope that they will use this episode as “the rallying point.”
Nadella urgently wants the company to figure out how to take advantage of the explosion of artificial intelligence, an epochal shift in computing. AI is already beating world grandmasters at Go, the notoriously complex board game, and helping develop therapies for cancer and multiple sclerosis. If the CEO can correctly position Microsoft as the leader in smart, helpful, nonracist bots, maybe he can bring the company back to a position of strength in the age of smartphones. Microsoft certainly has the resources to stay the course, with more than $100 billion in cash and a market value of $423 billion as of March 28.
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