AI

The secret language of chatbots

Comment

Vadim Berman

Contributor

Vadim Berman is director of engineering at Aspect Software. He came to Aspect with the acquisition of LinguaSys in 2015. Vadim co-founded LinguaSys in 2010 and was the chief technology officer. He recently moved to Massachusetts from Melbourne, Australia.

More posts from Vadim Berman

Give a journalist a buzzword and you’ve fed him for a day.

Give a journalist a topic to investigate and explore and you feed the entire industry for years. Even more so when the topic is a sci-fi trope like artificial intelligence.

These days, we are bombarded by warnings about imminent technological disasters. The scenario of robots and AI putting everyone out of work is one of them. Despite the rising skepticism over IBM’s heavily marketed Watson and companies like Foxconn reaching a measly 2.5 percent of their original ambitious automation goals, very few automation impact studies, let alone pieces that cite them in the mainstream press, seem to consider that the technical and organizational hurdles may not be as easy to overcome. (Even though different waves of hype emerged in the 1950s and the 1980s, this time is different, right?)

And if massive social upheaval is not enough to scare the public, there is always the robot uprising. The latest episode in this saga is an experiment on Facebook that resulted in two chatbots that supposedly “invented a secret language,” which (according to the reporters with more developed imaginations), made Facebook “put a cork” on the experiment.

Game of (broken) telephones

On June 14, 2017, an article on TechCrunch described the experiment: Facebook researchers played with an interesting idea of treating a negotiation like a game. They tried to force the bots to learn both the rules of the game and the limited negotiation language using reinforcement learning. The original link no longer works, but the paper has since been uploaded to Arxiv. Unfortunately, the original screenshots seem to be gone.

An article published in The Atlantic on June 15, 2017, picked an obscure line in the report saying that the bot-to-bot conversation “led to divergence from human language.” The piece claimed that the bots weren’t just spouting nonsense; they “developed their own language” for the purpose of negotiating.

This created an avalanche. Sensationalist details grew like a snowball, and by the end of July, Independent’s summary of the story was: “Facebook’s artificial intelligence robots shut down after they start talking to each other in their own language… Facebook abandoned an experiment after two artificially intelligent programs appeared to be chatting to each other in a strange language only they understood.”

 

I can practically see white-robe-clad researchers in a clean room checking whether the poison gas controls are disconnected, and debating with each other about intelligence, soul and what it means to be human. (Maybe it’s not just my imagination, but the fact remains that many articles pictured sci-fi imagery from Terminator and Westworld. That’s despite the fact that Person of Interest is much more suitable here.)

Several sources, from Gizmodo to the always skeptical commenters on Y Combinator News, picked the story apart. The story earned its own page in Snopes and frustrated Facebook posts of the project lead Mike Lewis.

What really happened

There is no point copying the resources linked above. They explain in exhaustive detail that no robot uprising took place and that no one “stopped” the experiment. There are, however, some interesting conclusions to be drawn and questions to be asked.

A day before the hype began, New Scientist explained the approach from a more technical point of view:

One bot was taught to mimic the way people negotiated in English, but it turned out to be a weak negotiator, and too willing to agree to unfavorable terms. A second was tasked with maximizing its score. This bot was a much better negotiator but ended up using a nonsensical language impossible for humans to understand.

In other words, neither of the bots could accomplish the compound task of learning the language and negotiating properly.

Don’t get me wrong, the task is extremely complex; moreover, I am not sure how or whether it’s possible to learn even a limited language from scratch from only 5,000 sentences.

But the main point that was missed by the hype-hungry press and avoided by the researchers for obvious reasons was that it was not a success with an unexpected side effect; it was another attempt whose main upside was that “we learned something new today” — more “work in progress.” The original purpose was to design a negotiation aid, but it would take a special kind of user to be happy with advice like “balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.

According to the press, the researchers claimed that the language was not random nonsense, but had its own grammar (in all fairness, I could not find that part in the Arxiv paper). Some commentators assumed that the repetition is meant to describe numeric values (e.g. if the word is repeated five times, it means five items). To me (pun not intended), it looks like some of the phrases had a buffer overflow and the result was simply truncated, so there is no way to verify the numbers assumption. Can we be even sure that two different bots trained on slightly different data sets will use the same “invented language”? Not at all, so a hypothetical robot uprising would stop at a stage where a bunch of bots slapped together from different data sets are unable to understand each other.

One serious unresolved issue with machine learning systems is debugging. Legendary Peter Norvig from Google highlighted the need for “a better set of tools,” saying that the current machine learning is a “black box,” exhibiting traits which are every coder’s worst nightmare:

Any bug will be replicated throughout the system. Changing one thing changes everything. There are techniques for understanding that there is an error, and there are methods for retraining machine-learning systems, but there isn’t a way to fix just one isolated problem.

In case of the bargaining bots, we can’t tell how bad was the signal degradation caused by the inability to parse the language properly. In fact, do we even know for certain what the bot language meant? We may assume the grammar was consistent, but unless the researchers managed to decipher, communicate back or had some kind of intermediate representation recording the intent of the bot’s communication, it could as well be XXI century’s AI version of Pierre Brassau, the ape artist.

The real language of chatbots

The curious case of the Facebook negotiation experiment aside, can the bots actually benefit from a language of their own?

The answer is yes. And we are not talking about a natural language.

The world where your phone can display an interactive map, detect that you are walking, tag a date or a location in your SMS or call a cab was made possible, among other things, by web services: the ability of different software components to talk to each other across different machines and computer networks. In less than 20 years from the time when the first billing web services were conceived, the ability of components to communicate (even if only over rigid, predefined channels) changed the fundamentals of software and hardware engineering.

Today’s bots are still in their infancy, but at least some of them are meant to handle a large number of domains with the input being unlimited in its scope. Today, these bots know to delegate tasks to predefined web services; some attempts are made to build dynamic cloud catalogues of “how-tos” redirecting to the correct web service.

The next step, however, could be a bot shopping for a better mobile data plan, or investigating what went wrong with a service, “talking” to its fellow bots to find out whether the service is available in another area and when it stopped using a large standard stack of primitives.

 

It does not have to involve natural language processing. It’s a matter of creating a standard language for queries and interactions between the bots, evolving the web services for the era when the software is smarter.

Interestingly enough, the “robot whisper” idea is not new. As early as in 2001, so-called Battle Management Language was proposed to control “human troops, simulated troops, and future robotic forces” (yes, there is a good reason to post that Terminator image again).

Research of Igor Mordatch from OpenAI (mentioned in some articles about the Facebook experiment) focuses on attempts to get the bots to develop their own language in a limited universe. As mentioned above, such a language would depend on the training set (or “universe,” as they call it) and not be useful as a means of communication with other bots (think of an isolated tribe in the Amazon that is unable to communicate with the rest of the world).

The software bots of today and tomorrow will require a more complex and flexible approach, and they will still need a standard and consistent knowledge representation. And, in case of the negotiation bot, the external knowledge representation will eliminate the ambiguities of the natural languages, allowing it to master the art of the deal in a structured, mathematically neat universe.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

16 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

18 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android