Posts tagged ‘chatbot’

Is this a breakthrough in robot emotion? Zhou et al describe the Emotional Chatting Machine (ECM), a chatbot which uses machine learning to return answers with a specified emotional tone.

The ultimate goal of such bots is to produce a machine that can detect the emotional tone of an input and choose the optimum tone for its response, but this is very challenging. It’s not simply a matter of echoing the emotional tone of the input; the authors suggest for example, that sympathy is not always the appropriate response to a sad story. For now, the task they address is to take two inputs; the actual content and a prescribed emotional tone, and generate a response to the content reflecting the required tone. Actually, doing more than reflecting is going to be very challenging indeed because the correct tone of a response ought to reflect the content as well as the tone of the input; if someone calmly tells you they’re about to die, or about to kill someone else, an equally calm response may not be emotionally appropriate (or it could be in certain contexts; this stuff is, to put it mildly, complex).

To train the ECM, two databases were used. The NLPCC dataset has 23,105 sentences collected from Weibo, a Chinese blog site, and categorised by human beings using eight categories: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Like, Sadness, Surprise and Other. Fear and Surprise turned up too rarely on Weibo blogs to be usable in practice.

Rather than using the NLPCC dataset directly, the researchers used it to train a classifier which then categorised the larger STC dataset, which has 219,905 posts and 4,308,211 responses; they reckon they achieved an accuracy of 0.623, which doesn’t sound all that great, but was apparently good enough to work with; obviously this is something that could be improved in future. It was the ’emotionalised’ STC data set which was then used to train the ECM for its task.

Results were assessed by human beings for both naturalness (how human they seemed) and emotional accuracy; ECM improved substantially on other approaches and generally turned in a good performance, especially on emotional accuracy. Alas, the chattbot is not available to try out online.

This is encouraging but I have a number of reservations. The first is about the very idea of an emotional chatbot. Chatbots are almost by definition superficial. They don’t attempt to reproduce or even model the processes of thought that underpin real conversation, and similarly they don’t attempt to endow machines with real or even imitation emotion (the ECM has internal and external memory in which to record emotional states, but that’s as far as it goes). Their performance is always, therefore, on the level of a clever trick.

Now that may not matter, since the aim is merely to provide machines that deal better with emotional human beings. They might be able to do that without having anything like real or even model emotions themselves (we can debate the ethical implications of ‘deceiving’ human interlocutors like this another time). But there must be a worry that performance will be unreliable.

Of course, we’ve seen that by using large data sets, machines can achieve passable translations without ever addressing meanings; it is likely enough that they can achieve decent emotional results in the same sort of way without ever simulating emotions in themselves. In fact the complexity of emotional responses may make humans more forgiving than they are for translations, since an emotional response which is slightly off can always be attributed to the bot’s personality, mood, or other background factors. On the other hand, a really bad emotional misreading can be catastrophic, and the chatbot approach can never eliminate such misreading altogether.

My second reservation is about the categorisation adopted. The eight categories adopted for the NLPCC data set, and inherited here with some omissions, seem to belong to a family of categorisations which derive ultimately from the six-part one devised by Paul Ekman: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. The problem with this categorisation is that it doesn’t look plausibly comprehensive or systematic. Happiness and sadness look like a pair, but there’s no comparable positive counterpart of disgust or fear, for example.  These problems have meant that the categories are often fiddled with. I conjecture that ‘like’ was added to the NLPCC set as a counterpart to disgust, and ‘other’ to ensure that everything could be categorised somewhere. You may remember that n the Pixar film Inside Out Surprise didn’t make the cut; some researchers have suggested that only four categories are really solid, with fear/surprise and anger/disgust forming pairs that are not clearly distinct.

The thing is, all these categorisations are rooted in attempts to categorise facial expressions. It isn’t the case that we necessarily have a distinct facial expression for every possible emotions, so that gives us an incomplete and slightly arbitrary list. It might work for a bot that pulled faces, but one that provides written outputs needs something better. I think a dimensional approach is better; one that defines emotions in terms of a few basic qualities set out along different axes. These might be things like attracted/repelled, active/passive, ingoing/outgoing or whatever. There are many models along these lines and they have a long history in psychology; they offer better assurance of a comprehensive account and a more hopeful prospect of a reductive explanation.

I suppose you also have to ask whether we want bots that respond emotionally. The introduction of cash machines reduced the banks’ staff costs, but I believe they were also popular because you could get your money without having to smile and talk. I suspect that in a similar way we really just want bots to deliver the goods (often literally), and their lack of messy humanity is their strongest selling point. I suspect though, that in this respect we ain’t seen nothing yet…

Picture: Google chatbot. Bitbucket I was interested to see this Wired piece recently; specifically the points about how Google picks up contextual clues. I’ve heard before about how Google’s translation facilities basically use the huge database of the web: instead of applying grammatical rules or anything like that, they just find equivalents in parallel texts, or alternatives that people use when searching, and this allows them to do a surprisingly good – not perfect – job of picking up those contextual issues that are the bane of most translation software. At least, that’s my understanding of how it works.  Somehow it hadn’t quite occurred to me before, but a similar approach lends itself to the construction of a pretty good kind of chatbot – one that could finally pass the Turing Test unambiguously.

Blandula Ah, the oft-promised passing of the Turing Test. Wake me up when it happens – we’ve been round this course so many times in the past.

Bitbucket Strangely enough, this does remind me of one of the things we used to argue about a lot in the past.  You’ve always wanted to argue that computers couldn’t match human performance in certain respects in principle. As a last resort, I tried to get you to admit that in principle we could get a computer to hold a conversation with human-level responses just by the brutest of brute force solutions.  You just can a perfect response for every possible sentence. When you get that sentence as input, you send the canned response as output. The longest sentence ever spoken is not infinitely long, and the number of sentences of any finite length is finite; so in principle we can do it.

Blandula I remember: what you could never grasp was that the meaning of a sentence depends on the context, so you can’t devise a perfect response for every sentence without knowing what conversation it was part of.  What would the canned response be to;  ‘What do you mean?’  – to take just one simple example.

Bitbucket What you could never grasp was that in principle we can build in the context, too. Instead of just taking one sentence, we can have a canned response to sets of the last ten sentences if we like – or the last hundred sentences, or whatever it takes. Of course the resources required get absurd, but we’re talking about the principle, so we can assume whatever resources we want.  The point I wanted to make is that by using the contents of the Internet and search enquiries, Google could implement a real-world brute-force solution of broadly this kind.

Blandula I don’t think the Internet actually contains every set of a hundred sentences ever spoken during the history of the Universe.

Bitbucket No, granted; but it’s pretty good, and it’s growing rapidly, and it’s skewed towards the kind of thing that people actually say. I grant you that in practice there will always be unusual contextual clues that the Google chatbot won’t pick up, or will mishandle. But don’t forget that human beings miss the point sometimes, too.  It seems to me a realistic aspiration that the level of errors could fairly quickly be pushed down to human levels based on Internet content.

Blandula It would of course tell us nothing whatever about consciousness or the human mind; it would just be a trick. And a damaging one.  If Google could fake human conversation, many people would ascribe consciousness to it, however unjustifiably. You know that quite poor, unsophisticated chatbots have been treated by naive users as serious conversational partners ever since Eliza, the grandmother of them all. The internet connection makes it worse, because a surprising number of people seem to think that the Internet itself might one day accidentally attain consciousness. A mad idea: so all those people working on AI get nowhere, but some piece of kit which is carefully designed to do something quite different just accidentally hits on the solution? It’s as though Jethro Tull had been working on his machine and concluded it would never be a practical seed-drill; but then realised he had inadvertently built a viable flying machine. Not going to happen. Thing is, believing some machine is a person when it isn’t is not a trivial matter, because you then naturally start to think of people as being no more than machines.  It starts to seem natural to close people down when they cease to be useful, and to work them like slaves while they’re operative. I’m well aware that a trend in this direction is already established, but a successful chatbot would make things much, much, worse.

Bitbucket Well, that’s a nice exposition of the paranoia which lies behind so many of your attitudes. Look, you can talk to automated answering services as it is: nobody gets het up about it, or starts to lose their concept of humanity.

Of course you’re right that a Google chatbot in itself is not conscious. But isn’t it a good step forward?  You know that in the brain there are several areas that deal with speech;  Broca’s area seems to put coherent sentences together while Wernicke’s area provides the right words and sense. People whose Wernicke’s area has been destroyed, but who still have a sound Broca’s area apparently talk fluently and sort of convincingly, but without ever really making sense in terms of the world around them. I would claim that a working Google chatbot is in essence a Broca’s area for a future conscious AI. That’s all I’ll claim, just for the moment.