October 2, 2023

No, the AI chatbots (still) aren’t sentient

Since testers began interacting with Microsoft’s ChatGPT-enabled Bing AI assistant last week, they’ve been getting some surreal responses. But the chatbot is not really freaking out. It doesn’t want to hack everything. It is not in love with you. Critics warn that this increasing focus on the chatbots’ supposed hidden personalities, agendas, and desires promotes ghosts in the machines that don’t exist. What’s more, experts warn that the continued anthropomorphization of generative AI chatbots is a distraction from more serious and immediate dangers of the developing technology.

“What we’re getting… from some of the world’s largest journalistic institutions has been something I would liken to slowing down on the highway to get a better look at a wreck,” says Jared Holt, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an independent think tank focused on extremism and disinformation. To Holt, companies like Microsoft and Google are overhyping their products’ potentials despite serious flaws in their programs.

Within a week after their respective debuts, Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered Bing AI assistant were shown to generate incomprehensible and inaccurate responses. These issues alone should have paused product rollouts, especially in an online ecosystem already rife with misinformation and unreliable sourcing. 

Though human-programmed limits should technically prohibit the chatbots from generating hateful content, they can be easily bypassed. “I’ll put it this way: If a handful of bored Redditors can figure out how to make your chatbot spew out vitriolic rhetoric, perhaps that technology is not ready to enter every facet of our lives,” Holt says.

Part of this problem resides in how we choose to interpret the technology. “It is tempting in our attention economy for journalists to endorse the idea that an overarching, multi-purpose intelligence might be behind these tools,” Jenna Burrell, the Director of Research at Data & Society, tells PopSci. As Burrell wrote in an essay last week, “When you think of ChatGPT, don’t think of Shakespeare, think of autocomplete. Viewed in this light, ChatGPT doesn’t know anything at all.”

“This technology should be scrutinized forward and backwards,” says Holt. “The people selling it claim it can change the world forever. To me, that’s more than enough reason to apply hard scrutiny.”

Dolan-Gavitt thinks that potentially one of the reasons Bing’s recent responses remind readers of the “rogue AI” subplot in a science fiction story is because Bing itself is just as familiar with the trope. “I think a lot of it could be down to the fact that there are plenty of examples of science fiction stories like that it has been trained on, of AI systems that become conscious,” he says. “That’s a very, very common trope, so it has a lot to draw on there.”

On Thursday, ChatGPT’s designers at OpenAI published a blog post attempting to explain their processes and plans to address criticisms. “Sometimes we will make mistakes. When we do, we will learn from them and iterate on our models and systems,” the update reads. “We appreciate the ChatGPT user community as well as the wider public’s vigilance in holding us accountable.”

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