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The dark side of the coming chatbot revolution

Mike Elgan | Jan. 4, 2016
For many, messaging app-based chatbots will replace search engines and virtual assistants. And friends.

M logo 
Facebook M is a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on the behalf of the user. Credit: Facebook

M is for 'Made Out Of People'

Facebook launched a new service on its mobile Messenger app called "M" (the code-name was Moneypenny).

M is a chatbot designed to do things for you. Trouble is, A.I. is imperfect. No chatbot has yet passed the Turing test uncontroversially.

So Facebook M performs a neat (if expensive) trick: Humans fill in where A.I. fails.

When you ask M whether people are involved, it replies: "I’m A.I., but humans train me."

That claim is simply not true. Humans directly answer some of the queries. So some of M is A.I., and, yes, humans train this A.I., but many queries are answered by people.

This has been proved by multiple journalists testing the system for human involvement.

In any event, this reveals that Facebook is willing to pay what must be a massive amount of money for real people to help answer M queries, while denying it all the while. Chat-based A.I. as an alternative to search -- or, for that matter, virtual assistants, customer service, and more -- could become a major, important way for people to use the Internet.

Companies are desperate to show that computers can convincingly respond as people would. They grasp intuitively that the public wants exactly that: A fake human.

Cheating on the Turing test by inserting humans is Facebook's stop-gap solution. But all chatbot makers, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and many others, are working hard on acing the test -- on creating a chatbot that always convincingly plays a humanlike role in our lives.

Google itself even created a somewhat philosophical A.I. engine, which emerged in the summer. Google researchers published earlier this year a research paper on Arxiv about a machine learning-based proof-of-concept chatbot they created that can discuss Big Questions, such as: "What's the meaning of life?" That sounds profound, until you learn that the answers have been gleaned from a database of movie dialog. The chatbot answers the Big Questions, but with Hollywood's answers.

Basing answers on existing dialog seems to be the winning approach to the problem of making chatbots seem human. At least, that's been Microsoft's experience.

X is for XiaoIce

Microsoft researchers in China have been developing a chatbot in China (and in Chinese) called XiaoIce, which is reportedly used by some 40 million people on their smartphones.

 

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