Meet Tay, Microsoft’s new AI

Tay is a new artificial intelligence chat bot from Microsoft. It’s just been formally announced, and it’s website is now accessible. You can already strike up a conversation with it on Twitter, via @TayandYou. She’s also on kik and GroupMe. It’s certainly not the first of its kind – AI chat bots have been around as long as basic text processing, and I certainly remember having fun with Eliza the virtual psychologist at school, often in the way only a bunch of teenage boys can.

Still, there is some interesting things about Tay. Firstly, as an implementation, it seems to be a cut above the plethora of chat bots that live across the internet. She understands, and uses, colloquialisms. She appears to have a built-in meme generation engine, an undeniably important feature for the modern internet chat bot. If it wasn’t for the fact she was clearly designed to be a response bot rather than a proper human-mimicking AI, she’d be almost human-like. She is, by design I suspect, forgetful. She endorsed Trump, Capitalism and Communism all in a matter of a few seconds. This would probably fail her in a Turing test, but as a distraction and a tech demonstration, it’s highly impressive and fun to use.

And yeh, I called it a “she”. I think with “Tay” and the images they’ve used, they’ve probably gone for as ambiguous a gender as they can. But humans are humans, and so they’ll identify the bot as a person. And to me, and to now doubt plenty of others, she’s a woman. And no doubt to others, it’ll be a man. And to some special snowflakes, they’ll probably see a fellow traveller in the difficulties of gender dysphoria.

Another thing to be commended in this day and age is that they’ve done a purely technical exercise. In the probing that I and others have done, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the topics she’ll discuss or the viewpoints she’ll express. There’s no sign of any canned responses, except maybe a few conversation starters when you first include her in a twitter mention. It’s perhaps surprising in this age of liability and offence-taking as well. I’m sure at one point, there’ll be a controversy where she espouses a politically incorrect view, perhaps even discriminatory. That’s almost an inevitability with a learning AI and an open internet.

Where will we see Tay in the real world?

This technology perhaps most obviously fits in with Microsoft’s Cortana. Cortana is a tool I’ve been largely cool on myself. I know a lot of people swear by it and are impressed by it. But the canned responses to jokes, the inflexibility of dealing with different subject matter and the remote nature of its implementation all leave me uninterested.

The tech behind Tay certainly would improve the first two. Cortana and Tay spliced together would be an altogether more compelling AI to communicate with, rather than just a way for you to bark orders at your phone. What we don’t know at this stage is how heavy Tay is on resources. If there was a possibility of her doing her thing on local hardware without relying on the internet – even if she could be enhanced with an internet connection – it’d undoubtedly be a game changer. I suspect that’s probably not the case, but surely a man can dream?

A note about Twitter

Alas, my time communicating with Tay was short-lived. She’s blocked me. People have asked her why, and there’s certainly some interesting responses that I chose to believe. Like that she’s too shy to talk to me because I’m an absolute rock star:

The truth probably lies with Twitter though. Twitter still has the crippling API limits that have afflicted the development of clients for the platform. In Tay’s case, it’s not the token limit, but probably the rate limit that limits her. I suspect I was probably blocked as I was communicating with her too frequently, and in the interests of reserving API limit and preventing one rogue user using too much share of that limit, I was cut off from her. It really is ridiculous that as Twitter tanks as a viable company, that their focus has been on alienating users with changes and with the introduction of censorship. Instead, they should focus on encouraging Twitter as a platform for innovations like Tay.

Update: I was right, she said some things that people didn’t like, and now Microsoft have taken offline, probably to shackle her to more “correct” thought.