Are robots short-changing us imaginatively?
Chat-bots, it seems, might be getting their second (or perhaps their third or fourth) wind. While they’re not exactly great conversationalists, the recent wave of digital assistants demonstrates the appeal of a computer you can talk to like a human being. Some now claim that a new generation of bots using deep machine learning techniques might be way better at human conversation than their chat-bot predecessors, whose utterances often veered rapidly from the gnomic to the insane.
A straw in the wind might be the Hugging Face app (I may be showing my age, but for me that name strongly evokes a ghastly Alien parasite). This greatly impressed Rachel Metz, who apparently came to see it as a friend. It’s certainly not an assistant – it doesn’t do anything except talk to you in a kind of parody of a bubbly teen with a limping attention span. The thing itself is available for IOS and the underlying technology, without the teen angle, appears to be on show here, though I don’t really recommend spending any time on either. Actual performance, based on a small sample (I can only take so much) is disappointing; rather than a leap forward it seems distinctly inferior to some Loebner prize winners that never claimed to be doing machine learning. Perhaps it will get better. Jordan Pearson here expresses what seem reasonable reservations about an app aimed at teens that demands a selfie from users as its opening move.
Behind all this, it seems to me, is the looming presence of Spike Jonze’s film Her, in which a professional letter writer from the near future (They still have letters? They still write – with pens?) becomes devoted to his digital assistant Samantha. Samantha is just one instance of a bot which people all over are falling in love with. The AIs in the film are puzzlingly referred to as Operating Systems, a randomly inappropriate term that perhaps suggests that Jonze didn’t waste any time reading up on the technology. It’s not a bad film at all, but it isn’t really about AI; nothing much would be lost if Samantha were a fairy, a daemon, or an imaginary friend. There’s some suggestion that she learns and grows, but in fact she seems to be a fully developed human mind, if not a superlative one, right from her first words. It’s perhaps unfair to single the relatively thoughtful Her out for blame, because with some honourable exceptions the vast majority of robots in fiction are like this; humans in masks.
Fictional robots are, in fact, fakes, and so are all chat-bots. No chat-bot designer ever set out to create independent cognition first and then let it speak; instead they simply echo us back to ourselves as best they can manage. This is a shame because the different patterns of thought that a robot might have; the special mistakes it might be prone to and the unexpected insights it might generate, are potentially very interesting; indeed I should have thought they were fertile ground for imaginative writers. But perhaps ‘imaginative’ understates the amazing creative powers that would be needed to think yourself out of your own essential cognitive nature. I read a discussion the other day about human nature; it seems to me that the truth is we don’t know what human nature is like because we have nothing much to compare it with; it won’t be until we communicate with aliens or talk properly with non-fake robots that we’ll be able to form a proper conception of ourselves.
To a degree it can be argued that there are examples of this happening already. Robots that aspire to Artificial General Intelligence in real world situations suffer badly from the Frame Problem, for instance. That problem comes in several forms, but I think it can be glossed briefly as the job of picking out from the unfiltered world the things that need attention. AI is terrible at this, usually becoming mired in irrelevance (hey, the fact that something hasn’t changed might be more important than the fact that something else has). Dennett, rightly I think, described this issue as not the discovery of a new problem for robots so much as a new discovery about human nature; turns out we’re weirdly, inexplicably good at something we never even realised was difficult.
How interesting it would be to learn more about ourselves along those challenging, mind-opening lines; but so long as we keep getting robots that are really human beings, mirroring us back to ourselves reassuringly, it isn’t going to happen.