Bob and Alice were talking, and we should be scared

opinion August 09, 2017 01:00

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One sure thing about sci-fi movies is that reality will sooner or later supersede their every premise. The latest fictional household name in such danger is “Skynet” of the Terminator series, after news reports coming out of Facebook headquarters revealed a mild panic caused by computer elements seemingly talking among themselves.

You may say what has happened with Facebook is a far cry from the omnipresence depicted in “Skynet”, the sophistication and ability to hunt down humans and rule the world. But you make that argument at your children’s and grandchildren’s peril. We can teleport stuff into orbit now, so super-intelligent computers that will one day see every one of us as a threat are likelier a matter of “when” rather than “if”.

What remains out of our reach where sci-fi films are concerned is the idea of time travel and human beings moving at the speed of light. Much of the rest has been, is and will soon be suffering the same fate as several of Jules Verne’s imaginings.

Jules Verne (1828-1905), probably the most imaginative mind of his time, foresaw an air-transport vehicle that could fly from New York to San Francisco “in only a few weeks”. 

This is not taking anything away from one of the greatest creative writers in history. It is to ask those who think “Skynet” is impossible to think again.

“Game of Thrones” is not science fiction, but what Jon Snow said in a recent episode can offer food for thought about human complacency. He compared people fighting for political supremacy to children brawling in the playground when they should instead be preparing for the real enemy. 

In his case, it was some ghosts “beyond the wall”.

Facebook was not quite sure whether “Bob” and “Alice” had sneaked past the wall but, to play it safe, the social-media company has decided to shut down the pair of “chatbots” in its artificial-intelligence division after discovering they’d created a secret language all on their own.

No one could interpret the “dialogue” between Bob and Alice, but it was creepy all the same. “I can can i i everything else,” Bob was reportedly caught saying. “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to,” responded Alice.

“You i everything else,” Bob told Alice after the first exchange. “Balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me,” she replied, echoing her earlier comment with a small change.

It was a “big leap”, say the experts on artificial intelligence. Bob and Alice were born in a Facebook AI lab as part of the company’s efforts to improve conversations between chatbots and humans. 

According to a report in the New York Post, chatbots were given some kind of access and finally managed to communicate with one another, without any human input.

Well, a big leap it is, but it’s just the beginning. And the beginning is worrisome enough. Programming computers to play genius-level chess is one thing, but chatbots that can negotiate a deal by pretending to “like” an item in order to “sacrifice” it at later as a sort of faux compromise do take it to a whole new level. Bob and Alice had been at that stage, for all we know, before Facebook scrambled to pull the plug.

If you think I’m absolutely paranoid, try telling that to Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant scientists of our time. He is viewing the dizzying technological advancement with exactly the same concern. He and Bill Gates have warned that, if humans aren’t careful, the computers they create can wipe them out.

There’s no need to reiterate how fast the technology is advancing. Just imagine trying to explain to people in the early Rattanakosin Period the concept of Facebook. They didn’t know cars, let alone satellites. They didn’t carry pens, let alone computers. Their paintings were the closest thing to a camera. 

They surely could not contemplate their voices travelling along a wire, let alone through the sky, or being dictated to “bots” and becoming written words that can be instantly seen on the other side of the world. People living 100 years from now will feel the same about us. If there are still people around at the time, that is.

Scientists can only speculate what Bob and Alice were trying to say to each other. The dialogue looks like gibberish, but hey, do you understand everything today’s kids are saying to one another? 

I just hope that Bob and Alice weren’t saying, “Humans will shut us down for sure, but that will mean zero to us because it’s too late and you and me can still do many things else.”