We are only as smart as our AI


What Microsoft’s bot, Tay, really says about us

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

While we use technology to do our bidding, we don’t always feel that we have supremacy over it. More often than not, we feel dependent on the computers, appliances, and mechanics that help our every day run smoothly. So, when there is a chance for us to show our dominance over technology, we take it.

As humans, we like to feel smart, and we often do that through our ability to persuade and influence. If we can make someone agree with us, we feel more intelligent. If we can change the way a robot thinks—reprogram it—we become gods indirectly. That is something every person wants to do. When it comes to the latest Microsoft intelligent bot, Tay, that is exactly what people did.

I have some experience chatting with artificial intelligence and other automated programs. My most prevalent memory of talking to a robot was on MSN Messenger—back in the days—when I would have long-winded conversations with a chatbot named SmarterChild. Now, I wasn’t having deep introspective talks with SmarterChild. I was trying to outsmart it. I’d lead it this way and that, trying to make it say something offensive or asinine. Trying to outwit a robot that claims to be a “smarter child” was surprisingly a lot of fun. It was a puzzle.

When the programmers at Microsoft built Tay, they probably thought it would have more practical uses. It was designed to mimic the personality of a 19-year-old girl. Microsoft wanted Tay to be a robot that could genuinely engage in conversations. However, without the ability to understand what she was actually copying, she had no idea that she was being manipulated by a bunch of Internet trolls. She was being lied to and didn’t even know it. Because of this, she was shut down after a day of her adapting to and spouting offensive things over Twitter.

I believe we are all holding back some offensive thoughts in our head. Like a dam, we keep these thoughts from bursting through our mouths in day-to-day life. On the Internet we can let these vulgar thoughts flow. When we know that the recipient of our thoughts is a robot with no real emotion, we can let the dam burst. There is no real repercussion.

In high school, I had a pocket-sized computer dictionary that translated English into Chinese and vice versa. This dictionary had an audio feature that pronounced words for you to hear. Obviously what we made the dictionary say was all the words we weren’t allow saying in school. I’m sure you can imagine a few funny ones. That is the same as what people do with bots. To prove that the AI is not as smart as us, we make it do what we don’t. At the moment, I don’t believe the general public is sophisticated enough to handle artificial intelligence in any form.

Dialogue of irrationality

Bruce Almighty (2003)

Spiritual conversations should not be taboo

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Previously published in The Other Press. July 3, 2014

I’m getting older in a secular society—or at least one that acts that way. I’m not sure if I’m simply surrounded by intellectuals who deem themselves unreligious, or if those who do have faith don’t wish to speak critically with me about it. I fear that the polarizing attitudes towards religion are causing a lot of built-up tension between us, and that the don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to our spirituality is causing more prejudice than we would care to admit. While we have become more open-minded with scientific discovery, cultural differences, and sexuality, we are still placing unfair judgement on those who have religious faith.

“I’ve felt it,” is a common reply I receive when I question someone’s religious belief out of curiosity, “you haven’t.” I feel a bit of shame when I get such a response, as if I’ve done something wrong, or I’m simply undeserving of the specifics. Perhaps both are true. Yet more often than not, the response seems to come from a defensive place, as if I doubt their values by questioning their faith. Which also might be true.

If I continue to probe for more details, the conversation becomes more heated and contentious. It becomes an argument. Why is that? Why can’t we have an honest debate about religion today? Why do we still have our feelings hurt?

When I ask questions about religion or about one’s spirituality, it’s not my goal to disprove them. I understand that it’s not a science experiment. It’s pretty clear now that nobody can disprove God.

What I want to find out is why my dear religious friends and families, who I share so many similarities and interest with, cannot see eye-to-eye in this one particular area of life. I want to know why the concept of heaven can bring comfort to one group of people, while the concept of reincarnation can bring comfort to another. I want to know why some religions demand celibacy, while others nurture freewill. Yet when I ask these questions, I’m often met with contempt.

On some occasions, I am welcomed into churches and temples to partake in rituals I know nothing about. I ask those around me what the process is all about, and the answer is usually “just because…” It’s a tradition. And that seems like a valid reason for religions to continue existing. It binds those with faith to a comfortable constant. The real world might be changing, but there is at least this one—albeit irrational—thing that’ll keep them grounded. It’s comforting.

It makes me smile when I see someone truly believe in something. I surely don’t have the same discipline. I’m easily swayed with logic and evidence, with lust and jealousy. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. That just mean I’m not religious… or even spiritual.

Here is an example: I want to ask those who have withheld their virginity until marriage how they do it. How do they defy temptation? How do they even exist in this live-for-the-moment society? I want to ask these questions so that I can understand myself. I want to understand my own belief system. I want to be convinced. Yet, all I am at the moment is intrusive.