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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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Review of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Title: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author: Whitney Phillips

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02894-3

Length: 248

Price: $24.95

Rating: 90%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Ah, trolls…so much fun to watch when they’re harassing someone you think deserves it and so infuriating when they get under your skin. Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon on trolling behavior. That dissertation provides the foundation for This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things from MIT Press.

What is Trolling?

Phillips notes that the central theme of all trolling is lulz, which she defines as amusement at other peoples’ distress. Proactive schadenfreude, I guess. Trolls are perfectly happy to derive their enjoyment from regular users, public figures, and other trolls. All that matters are the lulz.

One of the first widespread instances of trolling took place when a group of trolls invaded the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats, asking increasingly odd questions and suggesting inappropriate solutions to feline health issues. Regardless of your cat’s respiratory issues, you probably won’t need to aerate it with a .357 hollow-point bullet. I never visited the rec.pets.cats group, but discussion of the trolls’ behavior leaked over to the groups I did participate in. Even the collateral damage was significant. Another early example on Usenet, though one that bordered on spam as well, was “Serdar Argic”, an alias for what appeared to have been multiple posters sending out hundreds of lengthy posts per day denying the Armenian genocide from the early 20th century to groups such as soc.culture.history.

Trolling as Rhetoric

As a communications scholar, Phillips takes on trolling as a rhetorical activity, placing it in a broader cultural context as both product and amplifier of certain aspects of society. Specifically, the masculine drive for domination and as a complement to the 24-hour news cycle.

One reason middle school is such a vile experience for many children is the constant barrage of status games, where kids try to find their place in society at the expense of their classmates. Male trolls, who appear to dominate the landscape, continue this type of aggressive behavior online. They base their rhetorical strategies on the work of Arthur Schopenhauer’s book The Art of Controversy, which melds Aristotelian logic and Socratian dialectic with the Dark Side of the Force. The trolls’ goal is to invoke negative emotions from their targets and, upon eliciting insults or harsh language in response to their own provocations, remind their victims that there’s no room for rudeness in civilized argument and go right back to taking arguments out of context, insulting their opponent, and racking up the lulz.

Phillips also takes issue with conservative media, particularly Fox News and its handling of the Birther controversy, which raised the question as to whether President Barack Obama (usually spoken as Barack HUSSEIN Obama) should release his long-form birth certificate and, after it was released, whether it was a legitimate document. Fox News rode that story hard for much of 2008 and 2009 — you can still hear the echoes if you listen closely. Trolls took advantage of the coverage and some images of Obama to create intentionally offensive and racist memes.

That’s not to say trollish behavior is strictly the purview of Fox News and its ilk. When the Tea Party affiliate in Troy, Michigan had early success turning sentiment against a levy intended to fund the town’s library, an advertising agency devised a campaign purported to be from a group named Safeguarding American Families. The ads expressed opposition to the measure and announced the group would hold a book-burning party. The outrage at this fictitious statement turned sentiment in favor of the ballot measure, which ultimately passed.

Phillips also offers an interesting commentary on trolls as trickster characters. The trickster is known for undercutting the foundations of a society’s cultures or mores but not replacing it with anything. Rather than offer a helpful solution for how things could be done better, tricksters start a fire and walk away. When there are no more lulz to be had, the troll’s work is done.

Transitioning to a Publishable Book

Academic writing is often completely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the author’s field of inquiry. My brother wrote his dissertation on a public policy subject I found interesting, but I couldn’t get through more than three pages of the final document. (Sorry, Doug. I know I said I read the whole thing, but my soup spoon kept creeping toward my eyeballs.) Passive voice is used to maintain a semblance of objectivity and distance, specialized language pervades the text, and rewrites continue until the ultimate academic hazing ritual is complete.

Kind of makes me wonder if dissertation committees haven’t been trolling candidates since the 1500s.

Phillips and her editors did a terrific job of excising unneeded jargon from the text, though some usage and conventions they kept leap off the page. The seemingly ubiquitous forward slash appeared in the section on method/ology, but at least there were no indiscretions on the order of the visual pun When the (M)other is a Fat/Her that William Germano mentions in Getting it Published. That said, while phrasings indicating someone is “gendered” as male have entered the general literature, saying someone was “raced” as Caucasian still seems odd to this generally interested reader.

Conclusions

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a terrific introduction to the world of trolling, exploring how trolls put on figurative masks (or literal masks in the case of online anonymity) and generate lulz from those they encounter. As a former competitive debater in high school and college, I’m dismayed by the violence done to my beloved art of rhetorical controversy. Score some lulz for the trolls, I guess. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

April 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

The National Coin Flip Lottery

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On January 23, 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a paper citing income inequality as a threat to economic security in developed and developing countries. In part, they found that:

  • Income inequality has increased in both advanced and developing economies in recent decades.
  • There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.
  • Fiscal policy is the primary tool for governments to affect income distribution.

Unfortunately, the IMF declined to offer a solution, stating that “[t]his paper does not advocate any particular redistributive goal or policy instrument for fiscal redistribution.”

That’s where I come in.

Gettin’ Rich Ain’t Easy

Warren Buffett once remarked that if a person won $1 million flipping coins, he could sell a book entitled How to Make One Million Dollars Flipping Coins. His point is that some investors, regardless of how unskilled they are, will get lucky every now and then. We should not attribute everyone’s gains to great skill.

That said, there is a general pattern we can follow. People get rich by combining two abilities: making money and keeping money. The problem is that when you keep money it doesn’t flow through the system. Trickle-down economics in an age of hyper efficiency doesn’t work as well as it might. What we need is a low-impact system for wealth redistribution.

In the interest of creating up to 334 new millionaires every day, I propose a National Coin Flip Lottery. All 350 million Americans, regardless of age or income, must contribute one dollar per day to the lottery. We all need car insurance if we want to drive and we all need health insurance if we want to live, so this slight imposition is little more than an annoyance. If you have a Social Security number, you have to pony up.

Every morning at 5 AM Eastern time, a computer divides the database of American citizens into two groups: Heads and Tails. A representative flips a coin, probably a virtual coin because quarters come up heads slightly more often than tails, and eliminates the losers. The computer then randomly re-divides the population into halves and continues until we have 334 winners. That’s correct: after just 20 flips we will have 334 lucky millionaires.

The system collects $350 million every day, but the excess can fund lottery operations, reduce the national debt, and support a special lottery held every February 29. Let’s say we hold back $1 million of the $16 million excess from each drawing. There are 1,460 days between leap days, so we could give away enough money to create 1,460 new millionaires on that day alone.

Supporting the Public Interest

Just think about the positive social impact that creating 334 new millionaires every day could have on society. Yes, the less socially responsible winners would just blow their newfound riches and hope to win again, but quite a few of the lucky individuals will redistribute the wealth among their family and community. That level of liquidity would free up small-scale investments, provide competitive pressure for traditional lending institutions, and relieve poverty for a small percentage of the population every day.

It would be cruel for citizens to win 19 straight coin tosses and lose when they are on the cusp of being a millionaire. Therefore, I propose that individuals may enter a preference to split their prize at the $32,768 level or higher. If two individuals who are willing to split meet at a given level, they both automatically get the prize.

Given the raging expansion of gambling across the United States, with the quaint exceptions of Hawaii and Utah, this modest proposal fits comfortably into the American zeitgeist. Next February 29, join me in celebrating our new national holiday: Millionaires Day!

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.

Deer Join a Horse Race

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You never know when an improv moment will come along…

Written by curtisfrye

December 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Humor, Uncategorized