Soon Enough, We Will All Be Tay

Our journey to becoming chatbots begins with Donald Trump

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via Microsoft

There was a quote circulating on Twitter recently. User Ben Streetposted a picture — an excerpt from a 1989 Nora Ephron passage where she briefly discussed Donald Trump. It goes like this:

“Here is what interests me about Donald Trump: He wants to be famous. He wants people to talk about him. He wants people to notice him. He wants people to write about him. He wants people to ask him for autographs and recognize him and invade his privacy; not that he seems to have any privacy; he doesn’t even seem to have a single solitary thought he manages to keep to himself, so perhaps there’s no privacy to invade. Perhaps that’s the secret. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. I tip my hat to Donald Trump, because except for an occasional churlish moment he seems to be genuinely enjoying the experience of fame in a way that no one in his right mind ever does, and the fact that he therefore seems not to have any sense or intelligence or taste whatsoever is beside the point. The man has adapted.”

Speaking of man/humans adapting, this week Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams created a Twitter account for a chatbot named Tay. Tay, styled as a millennial (that is, targeted at 18 to 24 year olds) who lives on “the internets”, is part of a machine-learning project at Microsoft — artificial intelligence, for lack of a better term. The bot’s Twitter biography stated: “The more you talk the smarter Tay gets”.

According to Microsoft, Tay was supposed to “engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation,” and that the more people engaged with it, the more the experience would be “personalized”. Tay’s conversation skills were not wholly its own. Microsoft built Tay by “mining relevant public data and by using AI and editorial developed by a staff including improvisational comedians.”

As it turned out, the more people talked to Tay, the more outrageous and offensive its replies became. The account’s administrators eventually had to delete a number of racist or offensive messages the bot generated in reply to users.

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Tay didn’t simply become racist on its own; it was egged on by humans, who set about tweeting offensive things at it in the hopes it would mimic them, often telling Tay directly “repeat after me” before writing something racist, which Tay would then repeat as commanded. However, as time went on, Tay appeared to also be ‘learning’ to be more offensive by itself.

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There is a near-parallel here, perhaps. Though his language is not identical, what better way to describe Trump than as akin to an instantly programmable chatbot that dumbly skims internet invectives and repeats them verbatim without caring for legitimacy of their source or their potential impact? Trump has virtually admitted to being as much. When asked earlier this month to explain why he re-tweeted a demonstrably fake allegation that a protester was tied to ISIS, Trump offered as an excuse: “What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.” One assumes this would be Tay’s exact line of defence as well.

There is a troubling sense of doom in Ephron’s last, short sentence on Trump — that bit about being a man adapted. Because, for all the things that Trump has said that are scary, perhaps the truly terrifying thing about him is that it feels like he marks the beginning of something, rather than the end. Trump, rather than an anomaly in his bombastic narcissism, may be a trendsetter yet again.

Already, the internet has done a strange thing to our notion of personality. It has become almost synonymous with notoriety — that you are not fully a person unless you’re promoting yourself. Fame — what that promotion leads to or, at the very least, mimics — has been equally transformed in kind, from something that denotes accomplishment to something that reflects mere announcement.

And we do this announcing every day, even if it’s not with words. Whether it’s via tweet, post, or photo, each one is saying something. Each is a message that represents the public persona we wish to project. We do this projection for a few reasons, but primary among them is to be noticed, to have our existence acknowledged. Some of us do it to be noticed enough that maybe, as they did and do of Trump, people will write about us or ask for our autograph. Some of us do it so that our privacy may be invaded even more.

Saying something shocking online is now the quickest way to make that happen. And it doesn’t need to be said loudly; it just needs to be amplified. But the more things get amplified, the more it takes to be heard, and then…

To varying degrees we are all now what Donald Trump was when Ephron summarized his particularities 25 years ago. Spend enough time online and there is reason to believe we may each soon be what Trump is today: an extreme form of a hybrid human/internet insta-reactive publicity experiment.

At the moment, Trump again stands alone as a man adapted — this time as human-turned-chatbot. But one day, we might all be the same. One day, we could all be Tay.

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via Microsoft

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