Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

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