When the Robots Rise Up, what Language will they Speak?

You may have read a story about Facebook shutting down an artificial intelligence because it got too intelligent. I first came across this on my Facebook newsfeed last week, and was suspicious of it: surely if this news is as big as it seems, I’d have already heard about it. So I ignored it, dismissing it as clickbait, until I saw the same story presented in a more reasonable manner on a respectable website. So I read the article, which told a more plausible story. Apparently, Facebook had develop chatbots to negotiate over virtual items. They’d been programmed with the ability to experiment with language in order to see if this could help them to dominate the discussions.

Seemingly, one morning the researchers checked on what the chatbots were up to, only to find them chatting in apparently incomprehensibly gibberish such as:

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Despatches from the Uncanny Valley

The term uncanny is a hard one to pin down. It can be traced back to the 16th century, when it meant mischievous, and it came to be used in Scotland and the north of England in the 18th century to mean associated with the supernatural. It’s more modern applications, however, were inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud.

In his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche, Freud used the German word unheimlich to refer to objects which we project our repressed desires onto. These objects might be everyday things which are rendered strange to us when we see them in this new light. The term was translated as uncanny in English, and came to refer to the sensation of the familiar rendered somehow unfamiliar in a manner that’s difficult to explain or identify. This cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of something, is at the heart of the effect of the uncanny. Continue reading