Why You Shouldn’t Pay Attention to That Creepy Facebook AI Story

August 1, 2017

2:30 pm

As a tech reporter, sometimes I can lose sight of how little the average person tends to care about tech news. No, nobody wants to hear that another random bitcoin startup just got funded, or how many billions of VC investments we saw this quarter. But one story that has been huge over the past few days does seem to have made an impact. The problem is that it maybe shouldn’t have.

I’m talking about the “creepy Facebook AI” story.

What Happened

In June, Facebook first published a blog post on their chatbot research — the massive social platform has been looking into automation in order to drive engagement more efficiently. The story later developed into a look at the weird ways the bots communicated. A sample:

Bob: “I can can I I everything else”

Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to”

It was reported as though the bots had gone rogue and developed their own language, and the spooked Facebook engineers had shut the bots down in response. Everyone reacted in horror. One site’s homepage currently displays the headline “Facebook May Have Just Shown What Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking Have Been Afraid of All Along.” Others mentioned the “Frankenstein” that humanity had created.

What It Means

But did the news confirm how creepy Facebook AI actually is? Nope.

The bots weren’t displaying a higher intelligence. They were just meeting their goal of communicating efficiently without bothering to meet human standards. They never evolved beyond what their creators intended for them, and when they were shut down, it was probably for the same reason any work project gets ditched: it wasn’t working right. As Gizmodo puts it:

“In their attempts to learn from each other, the bots thus began chatting back and forth in a derived shorthand—but while it might look creepy, that’s all it was.”

The response from the casual observer says more about them than it does about AI. People still tend to see AI as it has been portrayed in science fiction for decades: a threat to humanity. But treating cutting-edge innovations through the lens of present-day fiction can close our minds to different interpretations. If we’re ever in an AI apocalypse, it’s probably just because our own fears of AI wound up turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Read more about artificial intelligence at TechCo

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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