I, For One, Welcome our ChatBot Overlords


It’s been a big couple of weeks for chatbots. First Microsoft’s teen-inspired bot gets turned from flights of fancy to Nazism and racism. Then Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg falls under the chatbot sway, predicting a rosy future for these in-messenger plug-ins. For those who’ve been computing for more than a few years, chatbots bring to mind the fevered natural-language meanderings of psychbot ELIZA, and a maze of twisty little passages, all of them different.

The former was an early artificial intelligence experiment, crafted at MIT 50 years ago, while the maze comes from an early text-based adventure game called, wait for it, Adventure. Both attempted to parse basic text commands to mimic a therapist, and provide a diverting escape.

Neither worked really well, but like the singing frog, back then you didn’t worry about how well it sang, but instead marveled that it could sing at all. Today’s chatbots are somewhat more convincing.

But as Microsoft found with Tay, advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) don’t necessarily translate into success. It took less than a day for Tay to “learn” from its interactions and evolve from playful and vacuous to racist and homophobic.

Although much was written about Tay’s descent into darkness, it’s just the beginning of the chatbot revolution, where computer-based entities will interact with us via text – and ultimately voice to enhance our lives. I’m wildly optimistic about where this technology will take us.

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