Tag Archives: chatbots

AI that talks to us could quickly become problematic

Google’s making the news again adding evidence to the unfortunate stereotype of the autistic IT nerd that barely understands normal people, and they have therefore been astonished at the backlash that normal people would all easily have predicted. (I’m autistic and work in IT mostly too, and am well used to the stereotype it so it doesn’t bother me, in fact it is a sort of ‘get out of social interactions free’ card). Last time it was Google Glass, where it apparently didn’t occur to them that people may not want other people videoing them without consent in pubs and changing rooms. This time it is Google Duplex, that makes phone calls on your behalf to arrange appointment using voice that is almost indistinguishable from normal humans. You could save time making an appointment with a hairdresser apparently, so the Googlanders decided it must be a brilliant breakthrough, and expected everyone to agree. They didn’t.

Some of the objections have been about ethics: e.g. An AI should not present itself as human – Humans have rights and dignity and deserve respectful interactions with other people, but an AI doesn’t and should not masquerade as human to acquire such privilege without knowledge of the other party and their consent.

I would be more offended by the presumed attitude of the user. If someone thinks they are so much better then me that they can demand my time and attention without the expense of any of their own, delegating instead to a few microseconds of processing time in a server farm somewhere, I’ll treat them with the contempt they deserve. My response will not be favourable. I am already highly irritated by the NHS using simple voice interaction messaging to check I will attend a hospital appointment. The fact that my health is on the line and notices at surgeries say I will be banned if I complain on social media is sufficient blackmail to ensure my compliance, but it still comes at the expense of my respect and goodwill. AI-backed voice interaction with better voice wouldn’t be any better, and if it asking for more interaction such as actually booking an appointment, it would be extremely annoying.

In any case, most people don’t speak in fully formed grammatically and logically correct sentences. If you listen carefully to everyday chat, a lot of sentences are poorly pronounced, incomplete, jumbled, full of ums and er’s, likes and they require a great deal of cooperation by the listener to make any sense at all. They also wander off topic frequently. People don’t stick to a rigid vocabulary list or lists of nicely selected sentences.  Lots of preamble and verbal meandering is likely in a response that is highly likely to add ambiguity. The example used in a demo, “I’d like to make a hairdressing appointment for a client” sounds fine until you factor in normal everyday humanity. A busy hairdresser or a lazy receptionist is not necessarily going to cooperate fully. “what do you mean, client?”, “404 not found”, “piss off google”, “oh FFS, not another bloody computer”, “we don’t do hairdressing, we do haircuts”, “why can’t your ‘client’ call themselves then?” and a million other responses are more likely than “what time would you like?”

Suppose though that it eventually gets accepted by society. First, call centers beyond the jurisdiction of your nuisance call blocker authority will incessantly call you at all hours asking or telling you all sorts of things, wasting huge amounts of your time and reducing quality of life. Voice spam from humans in call centers is bad enough. If the owners can multiply productivity by 1000 by using AI instead of people, the result is predictable.

We’ve seen the conspicuous political use of social media AI already. Facebook might have allowed companies to use very limited and inaccurate knowledge of you to target ads or articles that you probably didn’t look at. Voice interaction would be different. It uses a richer emotional connection that text or graphics on a screen. Google knows a lot about you too, but it will know a lot more soon. These big IT companies are also playing with tech to log you on easily to sites without passwords. Some gadgets that might be involved might be worn, such as watches or bracelets or rings. They can pick up signals to identify you, but they can also check emotional states such as stress level. Voice gives away emotion too. AI can already tell better then almost all people whether you are telling the truth or lying or hiding something. Tech such as iris scans can also tell emotional states, as well as give health clues. Simple photos can reveal your age quite accurately to AI, (check out how-old.net).  The AI voice sounds human, but it is better then even your best friends at guessing your age, your stress and other emotions, your health, whether you are telling the truth or not, and it knows far more about what you like and dislike and what you really do online than anyone you know, including you. It knows a lot of your intimate secrets. It sounds human, but its nearest human equivalent was probably Machiavelli. That’s who will soon be on the other side of the call, not some dumb chatbot. Now re-calculate political interference, and factor in the political leaning and social engineering desires of the companies providing the tools. Google and Facebook and the others are very far from politically neutral. One presidential candidate might get full cooperation, assistance and convenient looking the other way, while their opponent might meet rejection and citation of the official rules on non-interference. Campaigns on social issues will also be amplified by AI coupled to voice interaction. I looked at some related issue in a previous blog on fake AI (i.e. fake news type issues): https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

I could but won’t write a blog on how this tech could couple well to sexbots to help out incels. It may actually have some genuine uses in providing synthetic companionship for lonely people, or helping or encouraging them in real social interactions with real people. It will certainly have some uses in gaming and chatbot game interaction.

We are not very far from computers that are smarter then people across a very wide spectrum, and probably not very far from conscious machines that have superhuman intelligence. If we can’t even rely on IT companies to understand likely consequences of such obvious stuff as Duplex before thy push it, how can we trust them in other upcoming areas of AI development, or even closer term techs with less obvious consequences? We simply can’t!

There are certainly a few such areas where such technology might help us but most are minor and the rest don’t need any deception, but they all come at great cost or real social and political risk, as well as more abstract risks such as threats to human dignity and other ethical issues. I haven’t give this much thought yet and I am sure there must be very many other consequences I have not touched on yet. Google should do more thinking before they release stuff. Technology is becoming very powerful, but we all know that great power comes with great responsibility, and since most people aren’t engineers so can’t think through all the potential technology interactions and consequences, engineers such as Google’s must act more responsibly. I had hoped they’d started, and they said they had, but this is not evidence of that.



Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.