Tay the Microsoft Chatbot and the Age of Agitation


Tay the chatbot got a bit rowdy last week in a scorched earth Twitter fest that forced Microsoft to shut down its social media AI darling and apologize profusely for its behavior. It was an experiment in artificial intelligence gone awry.

Microsoft had created a bot to attract the attention of the Millennials by channeling the musings of a teenage girl, as a member of their “AI fam from the internet that’s got zero chill.”

Said Microsoft, “Tay is designed to engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation…the more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets.”

But “smarter” didn’t happen. Racism did. The more Tay conversed and engaged, the more hateful her tweets. Tay’s tweets soon adopted the jargon of the Neo-Nazis, racists, and xenophobes of the day.

In less than a few tweets out, Tay’s musings turned into racial outbursts, repeating oft said phrases like “Hitler was right” or “9/11 was an inside job.”

It took Microsoft twenty four hours to shut her down. Then somehow she escaped, ushering a second round of apologies after Tay tweeted her delight in “smoking kush” in front of the police.   And it just kept going from there, from Tay tweeting she “wouldn’t mind Trump, he gets the job done” to comparing Obama to a monkey to wishing Hitler was in power again.

Clearly this is an example of trolls playing a game to see who could get the robot to say the craziest shit. Then again, it’s also an example of a civility break down, a common occurrence that happens even without bots.

We live in a culture of broken down barriers, which sounds like a good thing but in fact it can sometimes drive us further apart. It seems like we live in an age of agitation, where freedom of speech has taken a turn for the worse in the form of uncensored social media.

Where social media was thought of as a way to open all the flood gates and let all forms of expression out, it can at times merely polarize us more.

Somehow social media tends to aggregate and broadcast the worst of what we say.

People are agitated right now, there is this global phenomenon, many global changes are happening, economically, culturally, socially that many people are not comfortable with and are seeking ways to communicate that discomfort. Instead of coming together, it feels like we are at times growing apart. And digital media can make it worse, not better.

This is a new era of Digital Tribalism. It’s when you give up on finding common ground and you retreat back to the safety and familiarity of your camp.

This relates back to Microsoft and Tay’s outbursts. We are trying out a new technology — artificial intelligence — and basically the end result of this test is that the worst of humanity is being revealed. There is something paradoxical in digital media where we feel protected and anonymous yet we are not protected, we do not have privacy. Instead, we are creating a digital record.  We feel protected enough to say stuff we shouldn’t say in public but we aren’t protected enough to keep these thoughts private.

Where in earlier pre-Facebook years, we would have voluntarily partitioned ourselves off to private communication quarters, to share our disgruntled opinions of people, politicians and the like with a friend over a glass of beer in a pub. Back then we could say certain things to certain people in the context of those friendships.

But those barriers have been broken down in social media. We announce our once private opinions in public, to whoever may read what we write or say. And it’s normal now to have “friends” that we haven’t even met in person.

We are losing our privacy and there really isn’t much we can do about it. Except to ironically air out our grievances on the internet.

Instead of using thoughtful civil discourse, we are retreating back to a place that is pretty alienating and isolating, creating dialogues of hate and anger, in the form of digital tribalism.

With Tay the chatbot, well is there something we can learn from that? I think we evolve as social animals and as we learn to create online communities there needs to be a correlating new kind of etiquette that goes with that. But we’ve lost sight of it, people now feel entitled to say whatever bullshit they want. But once we are offended by that, etiquette goes out the window. We get defensive and then we retreat back to our camp.

The incoming social media channels are the main way we communicate, but we don’t really know how. We’ve created these social weapons and we don’t know how to use them yet – I think it’s part of this new wave called agitation.

Hence we are seeing a new kind of anger out there now – call it the ‘Donald Trump Effect’ – it’s a symptom of what I perceive as global agitation and outright anger at something imperceptible but quite real to some people. Where is that agitation coming from?

Maybe this is just a temporary growing pain the way the global community becomes familiar with global media.

I think the solution is pretty clear, people need to be more compassionate, more understanding when communicating online, more effort needs to be made so we can get back to a place of civilized discourse.

What happened to etiquette? There were manners, social manners, from even a century or more ago, where people considered what was acceptable to say and what wasn’t. People learned that there were things better left unsaid, that lead to tensions and bad outcomes, so we learned to eliminate that from our social discourse. And that kind of discourse was the road map that we all used more or less in the art of conversation until the age of social media came upon us. Then it all went up for grabs.

Here’s the thing. We allow ourselves to be offensive in the digital world in ways we don’t allow ourselves to be offensive in face to face interactions.

Think about when you see someone at a party, and you talk about a hot topic, a really controversial topic like vaccines, for instance, where you are on the opposite side of the opinion fence. You suddenly have two people who disagree but will normally try to find common ground and back away from the topic. It’s called that sixth sense, a social intuition. Energy. You can tell when a person is mad or upset and you know to back away. Or most of us do.

But online, you don’t have that advantage, you don’t have the right social cues, you can’t read people. I like to have meetings with people because I want to get to know who they are in a way I can’t get to know them online. A lot of human interaction is nonverbal. You are using your human instincts to benefit from the encounter and hopefully no one goes away agitated.

We’ve eliminated the social filters, the ability to read people intuitively. You don’t have that connection online and so instead you can post stuff and piss off a whole bunch of people and you have no idea you just did that. Unless of course, that was your intention.

There’s a loss of intuition that comes with social media, and I will write about that in another post. How can we use our intuition better online?

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