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Last Updated Friday August 04 2017 03:52 PM IST

Did Facebook shut down its AI chatbot? Yes and No

Robin Alex Panicker
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Did Facebook close down its AI chatbot? Yes and No Representational image | Photo: iStock

A news break related to an interesting technology development kick-started this month. Facebook shut down an AI project as the chatbots created as part of a project developed their own communication language, as per reports.

Half truth it is. But delving into specifics of this news story, I think I should explain a bit about chatbots for the not so tech savvy readers.

Chatbot is a software designed to simulate communication with human users. This communication can happen over internet or with in a local network (like inside office).

Chatbots can be deployed in situations where a face-to-face interaction is not required, like customer support over text chat or voice.

They employ various techniques like machine learning, where software keeps learning and improving communication skills from every interaction that it engages with. It also amasses skills of natural language processing to understand the context and then responds with most possible accurate replies.

It is very much like how humans learn and improve their communication language starting from childhood. We all started with simple words. Over a period of time, we developed our communication skills through constant learning from each interaction we had with the help of our brain processing the languages.

The way ahead

In future, we will find chatbots engaging with us in various functions. Chat applications like Facebook Messenger and Telegram have a rich set of Application Program Interfaces (APIs).

WhatsApp is in the process of launching their APIs and business chat tools.

Already chatbots built on top of these platforms are employed in various customer engagement functions. The impact of these chatbots on employment and human resource needs is probably a topic for another discussion.

The chatbot connundrum

670957382 Representational image | Photo: iStock

Coming back to the widely circulated news development about Facebook shutting down chatbots, the news is inaccurate. Facebook did shutdown the chatbots only to reboot them after fixing some critical defects (bugs, as the technocrats call them).

The objective of that particular FB research is to improve AI to human communication by tuning the chatbots to learn good and simple English and also by acquiring negotiation skills.

The chatbots are programmed to communicate and negotiate with each other in English and through constant communication, learn the language, it’s usages, slangs and so on.

A far fetched claim

What happened was that at some point the bots started talking to each other using English words with out any grammatical, or contextual meaning. This could have happened most likely due to some defects in the programming. Well does that mean bots invented a new language? Too far fetched to claim so. We know 1 + 4 = 5, but if I write a program which calculates 1 + 4 as 6 and claim that this is a new arithmetic logic, in simple English it’s nonsense.

So is the case here too. One reason for this is that the bots were rewarded based on the negotiation goals that they achieved, but using good English was not considered for rewards.

Facebook shutdown the bots, fixed the program to ensure usage of good English and restarted them.

Because, as mentioned above, the objective is to teach the bots good English to communicate and negotiate with humans.

That communication can happen only in a language humans can understand. This is what happened to the best of my knowledge.

What is in store?

Well, bots can be programmed to create new languages or even to make an existing language better. In coming years, we will see chatbots being the first point of contact for most of the business communications.

And that process itself can act as a catalyst for evolution of new languages and slangs. Brace yourself for such a world were humans and machines interact, negotiate and work together to achieve common objectives. It’s already happening.

(Robin is a Software Engineer and Entrepreneur. He is also an investor in multiple technology startups in Kerala and outside)

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