Facebook experiment did produce simple bots that chattered in garbled sentences, but they weren’t alarming, surprising, or very intelligent. Nobody at the social network’s AI lab panicked but the errant media coverage may not bode well for our future. As machine learning and artificial intelligence, it’s crucial to understand the potential and the reality of these technologies. Here’s what really happened in Facebook’s AI research lab. Researchers set out to make chatbots that could negotiate with people. Their thinking: Negotiation and cooperation will be necessary for bots to work more closely with humans.
The team taught their bots to play this game using a two-step program. First, they fed the computers dialogue from thousands of games between humans to give the system a sense of the language of negotiation. Then they allowed bots to use trial and error—in the form of a technique called reinforcement learning. When two bots using reinforcement learning played each other, they stopped using recognizable sentences. Or, as Facebook’s researchers drily describe it in their technical paper, “We found that updating the parameters of both agents led to divergence from human language
Facebook’s researchers hoped to make bots that could play with humans, so they redesigned their training scheme to ensure they kept using recognizable language. That change spawned the fear-mongering headlines about researchers having to shut down the experiment. Facebook’s simple bots were designed to do only one thing: score as many points as possible in the simple game. And that’s exactly what they did. Because they weren’t programmed to stick with recognizable English.
Facebook’s experiment actually demonstrates the limitations of today’s AI. The blind literalness of current machine learning systems constrains their usefulness and power. Unless you can find a way to program in exactly what you want, you may not get it. It’s why some researchers are working toward using human feedback, instead of just code, to define AI systems’ goals.Once the bots started speaking English, they did prove capable of negotiating with humans.
Intriguingly, on some occasions Facebook’s bots said they were interested in items they didn’t really want. Machine learning research is fascinating, full of potential, and changing our world. The Terminator remains fiction.