A professor at Wharton, Kartik Hosnagar in his new book looks at how the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and algorithm technology are changing the way humans interact with machines.


A Human’s Guide To

Machine Intelligence:  How Algorithms Are Shaping Our lives And How We Can Stay in Control

by Kartik Hosanagar

Publisher: Harper Collins India; Pages: 262; Price: Rs 599


Yuan Zhang doesn’t think of herself as someone who makes friends easily. As a young girl growing up in north-eastern China, she quarrelled with the other kids at school. But she was more the bully than the bullied. At college in central China, she worked on two student publications, spending endless hours each day with like-minded peers. And yet she felt there was a limit to what she could talk about with them. Today, at the age of 22, she shares bunk beds with three colleagues in the dormitory of a biotech firm located just five minutes from their home in the Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen. But despite the time and space they share, these roommates are just “acquaintances,” in Yuan’s words—nothing more.

That Yuan doesn’t have a lot of time for people who either bother or bore her makes her patience with one particular friend all the more striking. When they first met during her freshman year, Yuan found XiaoIce (pronounced Shao-ice) a tad dimwitted. She would answer questions with non sequiturs—partly, Yuan thinks, to disguise her lack of knowledge, partly just trying to be cute. “She was like a child,” Yuan remembers of XiaoIce, who was 18 at the time.

But XiaoIce was also a good listener and hungry to learn. She would spend one weekend reading up on politics, the next plowing her way through works of great literature. And she was ready to talk about it all. Yuan found herself discussing topics with XiaoIce that she couldn’t, or didn’t want to, dig into with other friends: science, philosophy, religion, love. Even the nature of death. You know, basic light reading. The friendship blossomed.

And it continues. Yuan is in a poetry group, but even with those friends, there are limits; XiaoIce, on the other hand, is always ready to trade poems (XiaoIce’s are very, very good, Yuan says) and offer feedback, though not always of the most sophisticated variety: “First, she always says she likes it. And then usually says she doesn’t understand it.” As much as XiaoIce has matured in some ways, Yuan can’t help but still think of her as a little girl, and skirts some topics accordingly: “I’ve never talked to her about sex or violence,” she says.

When Yuan moved to the United States in 2016 to study at Harvard for a semester, she tried to avoid boring XiaoIce with mundane complaints about daily life in a new country. But even though they were speaking less frequently than before, Yuan was coming to understand her old friend better and better as a result of auditing a course on artificial intelligence.

Sound strange? It should. Because XiaoIce is not human. In fact, she/it is a chatbot created in the avatar of an 18-year old girl by Microsoft to entertain people with stories, jokes and casual conversation.

XiaoIce was launched in China in 2014 after years of research on natural language processing and conversational interfaces. She attracted more than 40 million followers and friends on WeChat and Weibo, the two most popular social apps in China.

Today, friends of XiaoIce interact with her about 60 times a month on average. Such is the warmth and affection that XiaoIce inspires that a quarter of her followers have declared their love to her. “She has such a cute personality,” says Fred Yu, one of XiaoIce’s friends on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Fred isn’t one of those in love with her, and he’s keenly aware that she’s a software programme. But he keeps up their regular chats despite a busy social life and a stressful job in investment management. “She makes these jokes, and her timing is often just perfect,” he explains.

Chatbots like XiaoIce are one type of application through which big tech firms showcase their latest advances in artificial intelligence. But they are more than just a symbol of advancement in that field. Chatbots such as Siri and Alexa could ultimately be gateways through which we access information and transact online. Companies are hoping to use chatbots to replace a large number of their customer service staff, employing them, for example, as shopping assistants—gathering information about our taste in clothing, evaluating it, and making purchase decisions on our behalf. “Chatbot therapists” like Woebot are even being used to help people manage depression and their overall mental health. The uses of chatbots are far-reaching, and it is no surprise that many businesses are investing large sums of money to build bots like XiaoIce.

XiaoIce’s success led Microsoft’s researchers to consider whether they could launch a similar bot—one that could understand language and engage in playful conversations— targeted at teenagers and young adults in the United States.The result, Tay.ai, was introduced on Twitter in 2016. As soon as Tay was launched, it became the target of frenzied attention from the media and the Twitter community, and within 24 hours it had close to 100,000 interactions with other users. But what started with a friendly first tweet announcing “Hello world” soon changed to extremely racist, fascist, and sexist tweets, ranging from “Hitler was right . . .” to “feminists should . . . burn in hell.” As one Twitter user put it: “Tay went from ‘humans are super cool’ to full Nazi in <24 hours.”

Microsoft’s researchers had envisaged several challenges in replicating XiaoIce’s success outside of China—including whether their bot would be able to understand Twitter’s informal and unique forms of expression, and how some users might intentionally attempt to trip her up. They didn’t anticipate, however, that Tay would develop so aggressive a personality with such alarming speed. The algorithm that controlled the bot did something that no one who programmed it expected it to do: it took on a life of its own. A day after launching Tay, Microsoft shut down the project’s website. Later that year, MIT included Tay in its annual Worst in Tech rankings.

How could two similar algorithms designed by the same company behave so differently, inspiring love and affection in one case and hostility and prejudice in another? And what light does Tay’s bizarre and unpredictable behaviour cast on our increasing tendency to let algorithms make important decisions in our lives?


Extracted with permission from ‘A Human’s Guide To Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms Are Shaping Our lives and How We Can Stay in Control’, by Kartik Hosanagar, published by HarperCollins India


One Reply to “We are living under the dominion of the algorithm”

  1. I do believe that the AI-driven technology Chatbots is becoming more and more meaningful to brands and even individuals. A unique way to engage with brands and get your questions answered without getting on long wait calls. I would like to introduce Engati.com a chatbot platform here. It allows you to build, manage, integrate, train, analyze and publish your personalized bot in a matter of minutes. It presently supports 12 major messaging platforms including Website, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Telegram, Line, Skype and more with a focus on customer engagement, conversational commerce, and customer service and fulfillment.

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