In 2016, Microsoft’s Racist Chatbot Revealed the Dangers of Online Conversation

IEEE Spectrum

This is part five of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

In March 2016, Microsoft was preparing to release its new chatbot, Tay, on Twitter. Described as an experiment in “conversational understanding,” Tay was designed to engage people in dialogue through tweets or direct messages, while emulating the style and slang of a teenage girl. She was, according to her creators, “Microsoft’s A.I. fam from the Internet that’s got zero chill.” She loved E.D.M. music, had a favorite Pokémon, and often said extremely online things, like “swagulated.” 

Tay was an experiment at the intersection of machine learning, natural language processing, and social networks. While other chatbots in the past—like Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza—conducted conversation by following pre-programmed and narrow scripts, Tay was designed to learn more about language over time, enabling her to have conversations about any topic.

Machine learning works by developing generalizations from large amounts of data. In any given data set, the algorithm will discern patterns and then “learn” how to approximate those patterns in its own behavior.

Using this technique, engineers at Microsoft trained Tay’s algorithm on a dataset of anonymized public data along with some pre-written material provided by professional comedians to give it a basic grasp of language. The plan was to release Tay online, then let the bot discover patterns of language through its interactions, which she would emulate in subsequent conversations. Eventually, her programmers hoped, Tay would sound just like the Internet. 

On March 23, 2016, Microsoft released Tay to the public on Twitter. At first, Tay engaged harmlessly with her growing number of followers with banter and lame jokes. But after only a few hours, Tay started tweeting highly offensive things, such as: “I f@#%&*# hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell” or “Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job…”

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