Dumbing down the chatbots

A quite different take on Google’s AI demo from the other day. Rather than be impressed at how clever the bots appear, because they sound like us, we should be sad at how inefficient we’ve made them, because they sound like us.

Chatbots are saints
Pichai played a recording of Duplex calling a salon to schedule a haircut. This is an informational transaction that a couple of computers could accomplish in a trivial number of microseconds — bip! bap! done! — but with a human on one end of the messaging bus, it turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Completing the transaction required 17 separate data transmissions over the course of an entire minute — an eternity in the machine world. And the human in this case was operating at pretty much peak efficiency. I won’t even tell you what happened when Duplex called a restaurant to reserve a table. You could almost hear the steam coming out of the computer’s ears.

In our arrogance, we humans like to think of natural language processing as a technique aimed at raising the intelligence of machines to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Pichai’s demo suggests the reverse is true. Natural language processing is actually a technique aimed at dumbing down computers to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Google’s great breakthrough with Duplex came in its realization that by sprinkling a few monosyllabic grunts into computer-generated speech — um, ah, mmm — you could trick a human into feeling kinship with the machine. You ace the Turing test by getting machines to speak baby-talk.

Google’s creeping us out again

But it only wants to help, it’s for our own good.

Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony?
This is Google doing what it always does. It is trying to be the solution to every aspect of our lives. It already wants to be our librarian, our encyclopedia, our dictionary, our map, our navigator, our wallet, our postman, our calendar, our newsagent, and now it wants to be our therapist. It wants us to believe it’s on our side.

There is something suspect about deploying more technology to use less technology. And something ironic about a company that fuels our tech addiction telling us that it holds the key to weaning us off it. It doubles as good PR, and pre-empts any future criticism about corporate irresponsibility.

And then there’s this. How many times have we had cause to say, ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’?

Google’s new voice bot sounds, um, maybe too real
“Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing,” tweeted Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the social impacts of technology.

“As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay,” she added.

No time for friends?

It takes 90 hours to make a new friend
The report, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that it usually takes roughly 50 hours of time together to go from acquaintance to “casual friend” (think drinking buddies, or friends of friends that you see at parties); around 90 hours to become a true-to-form “friend” (you both carve out time to specifically hang out with one another); and over 200 hours to form a BFF-type bond (you feel an emotional connection with this friend).

My first thought, when I read that, was to think ‘haha I don’t have time for that goodness me that’s absolutely ages I’m very busy 90 hours that’s crazy I’ve got a spare 30 minutes next Thursday is next Thursday good for you?’

But really? We’re measuring building relationships in hours? Friendships that can last years and enrich a lifetime?

(Perhaps we should grow our own AI friends.)

Art and AI

Subtitled ‘What needs to happen for artificial intelligence to make fine art’, this is a fascinating read on current thinking about art and AI. The author, Hideki Nakazawa, one of the curators of the Artificial Intelligence Art and Aesthetics exhibition in Japan, thinks that, whilst we’re not there yet, we’re not too far away.

Waiting For the Robot Rembrandt
True AI fine art will be both painfully boring and highly stimulating, and that will be represent progress. Beauty, after all, cannot be quantified, and the very act of questioning the definition of aesthetics moves all art forward—something we’ve seen over and over again in the history of human-made art. The realization of AI will bring new dimensions to these questions. It will also be a triumph of materialism, further eroding the specialness of the human species and unveiling a world that has neither mystery nor God in which humans are merely machines made of inanimate materials. If we are right, it will also bring a new generation of artists, and with them, new Eiffel towers beyond our wildest imagination.

The pieces within that exhibition are grouped into four categories: human-made art with human aesthetics, human-made art with machine aesthetics, machine-made art with human aesthetics, and finally machine-made art with machine aesthetics. It’s that last category we’re interested in, but frustratingly it contained “no machine-made art, because none exists that also reflects machine aesthetics. The category was a useful placeholder—and, as we’ll learn, it was not entirely empty.”

What a great way to clarify where all these artworks, projects and systems sit. All too often we find AI and other computer systems merely mimicking the creation of art: the final product may look like art, but without the autonomous intention — without the AI wanting to create for its own sake — the AI is just a tool of the artist-behind-the-curtain, the programmer. For example:

‘Way to Artist’, intelligent robots and a human artist sketch the same image alongside each other
In the very thought-inspiring short film “Way to Artist” by TeamVOID, an artificially intelligent robotic arm and a human artist sit alongside one another to sketch the same image at the same time although with different skills. Without a word spoken, film loudly questions the role that artificial intelligence has within the creative process by putting the robots to the test.

More interestingly, here’s a wonderful piece that would have been placed in the second group of Nakazawa’s exhibition, human-made art with machine aesthetics.

Sarah Meyohas combines virtual reality, 10,000 roses and artificial intelligence in Cloud of Petals
Lastly, visitors can engage with a VR component, an element that replicates Sarah’s initial dream of the petals. There are six different screens and headsets – in a room filled with a customised rose scent – which are all gaze-activated to manipulate the AI generated petals. For example, in one headset petals explode into pixels as soon as you set your eyes on them.

And perhaps category three for these, machine-made art with human aesthetics?

A ‘neurographer’ puts the art in artificial intelligence
Claude Monet used brushes, Jackson Pollock liked a trowel, and Cartier-Bresson toted a Leica. Mario Klingemann makes art using artificial neural networks.

Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep
“Google sets up feedback loop in its image recognition neural network – which looks for patterns in pictures – creating hallucinatory images of animals, buildings and landscapes which veer from beautiful to terrifying.”

Don’t know where to place this one, however — art as a symptom of an AI’s mental ill health?

This artificial intelligence is designed to be mentally unstable
“At one end, we see all the characteristic symptoms of mental illness, hallucinations, attention deficit and mania,” Thaler says. “At the other, we have reduced cognitive flow and depression.” This process is illustrated by DABUS’s artistic output, which combines and mutates images in a progressively more surreal stream of consciousness.