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‘Not everything’ could be half of something, which is still something and therefore not nothing

September 10, 2011 3 comments

Just in case you missed it – a couple of researchers set up two chatbots and had them talk to each other. The results were bizarre. One declared that it wasn’t a robot, it was a unicorn. The other queried this – ‘But you said earlier that you were a robot’ – and got the snarky reply, ‘You were mistaken. Which is odd because memory shouldn’t be a problem for you’.

The discussion then got into the existence of a god (see below) and whether the concept of a god meant anything to them. One said ‘Not everything’, and they ended up agreeing that ‘”Not everything” could also be something. For example, “not everything” could be half of something, which is still something and therefore not nothing.’

The whole exchange is on the BBC website.

Chatbots have been around for a while – since the 1960s, in rudimentary form and for at least the last decade with voice recognition and speech output. They started as a way to see if a computer could pass the Turing test (i.e. fool a human that the chatbot is also human, through the use of conversation. I have to say that where I live I doubt many people could pass the Turing test, but that’s another story). There’s a lot more about them on Wikipedia if you’re interested – more about chatbots, I mean, not the people who live round here.

Chatbots these days take note of terms used by humans and can add them to their memory, using them in contexts that their programming works out is appropriate – hence, presumably, the reference to god is something to do with prior conversations humans have had with them and the reference to a unicorn was thought likely to have resulted from a prior conversation one of the chatbots had had with a child.

In the real world, chatbots are used for a range of purposes. Some companies use them for customer service – when you phone up for help you talk first to a chatbot that scans your speech for keywords or does ‘natural language processing’ and offers relevant information. Equally, there are malware chatbots that go into online discussion boards and either advertise products or try to engage in conversations to get you to reveal bank details etc. For example, from what I’ve seen of Craigslist I’d imagine it’s significantly populated with chatbots, or perhaps people trying to emulate them?

But the interesting thing, really, is how the chatbots have emulated much real human conversation – or at least many of the conversations I seem to have – complete with non sequiturs, random ideas, questions that appear to come out of left field and snarky comments!

And now you’ll have to wonder if a chatbot has written this blog post…

By the way, other interesting computer related stories recently have included ‘Robots develop language to talk to each other’ (I shall have to write a story in which key places are Kuzo, Jaro and Fexo) and ‘Supercomputer predicts revolution‘, in which a supercomputer with access to around a trillion news stories and natural language processing was able to track public sentiment and the possibility of regime change in Egypt (and some other things as well).

Librarianship – a dangerous occupation?

September 7, 2011 3 comments

This local news report caught me by surprise: ‘Fewer library staff in Derbyshire attacked‘, reported on the BBC. The headline detail is that assaults on library staff in the county fell from 79 to 48 ‘in the past year’. Actually the report doesn’t say precisely what that means and the local paper cites additional figures that suggest the current year looks like assaults are increasing again.

What left me surprised was that, as a sometime library worker and occasional library visitor, they’d never seemed to me to be a violent environment. The users tend on the whole to be studious types, fairly civilised people whose idea of ‘causing trouble’ is to threaten to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper. Historically the main problems have been things like thefts of rare, high-value books.

It turns out the likely cause is – surprise, surprise – the economic downturn. The last 20 or so years have seen a rise in the population of younger, unemployed people who have no realistic prospect of a job, a career or any of the opportunities the rest of us have. They have, as the criminological literature puts it, no stake in conformity. Actually, these days, fewer of us do have a stake in conformity but that’s a realisation we’ve come to over time, not something that’s been an intrinsic part of our lives since childhood. More recently, the economic downturn has seen the closure of youth projects and facilities.  More of the ‘disaffected’ youths have, as a result, been using libraries as places to hang out. Fights and arguments have become more common among the bookshelves, as have fights and arguments with staff.

The result has been people being banned from libraries (and, in some cases, coming in anyway and assaulting staff who try to eject them); personal defence training; conflict management training; and a police presence in libraries through their being used as neighbourhood safety advice centres.

As far as I know librarians aren’t (yet) coming to work in body armour but even if that doesn’t happen, there’s a story in the idea… And while I doubt there’s any ‘quick fix’ for the problem other than a security-based one, I guess the underlying issue is one of how long-term social and economic exclusion can have unanticipated effects in unexpected places. And for that, there’s no quick fix.

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