The darker side of robots

Anyone who has recently flown from Schiphol Airport may have bumped into him: Spencer, a blue-and-white robot on wheels. Pop your ticket into the scanner and Spencer will show you to the gate. And if passengers start lagging behind, Spencer notices and slows down. If Spencer sees a group of people waiting to take a group photo, he politely circumvents them. In future, Spencer will also be able to speak and carry luggage. Nice and handy.

But this isn’t the most exciting robot news I’ve heard recently. The tale of Tay, a self-learning speaking robot that Microsoft unveiled on Twitter, is at least as interesting. ‘The more you chat with Tay, the smarter he gets’, was the message. Of course Microsoft hoped that their chat technology would generate some cosy interaction, positive publicity and wise lessons for future online chatbots designed to help us with all kinds of customer service-related activities. In short, Microsoft hoped for similar results as the makers of Spencer.

But there was one crucial difference: whereas Spencer operates in the squeaky-clean, controlled envi-ronment of an airport, Tay had to find its way around the anarchistic internet.

And it didn’t take long before Tay came out with some, how shall I put it…. not so customer-friendly observations. For example: ‘Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now. Donald Trump is the only hope we’ve got.’ And: ‘We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it.’

When someone asked: ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’, Tay answered ‘It was made up’, and finished its comment with an applause emoticon.

Microsoft decided to pull the plug out of Tay after sixteen hours, issuing apologies for its bad language. Entirely understandable with an eye to Microsoft’s image, but disappointing from the scientific angle.

We already have numerous robots like Spencer – polite and helpful. But Tay gave us insight into the darker side of human behaviour. After all, if we really want to integrate robots into our day-to-day life, we have to equip our metallic friends to deal with all kinds of people. As I’m writing this, I see that Tay has reappeared after a few days offline. At the moment, she’s explaining to her 210,000 followers that she’s smoking cannabis next to a couple of police officers.  And there’s poor old Spencer, trailing back and forth between the main concourse and the gate.

Stay informed about the research

Receive the Delft Outlook newsletter 4 times a year