If you knew I was a computer, would you still talk to me?

December 14, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Jon Ronson is up to his usual tricks, and posted a thought-provoking video at the Guardian.

He was reporting on an experiment using ‘bots’ (artificial intelligence) on twitter, and analysing how they changed the patterns of communication between humans.

It sounds a lot like another form of the Turing test but from the examples they gave in the video, the bots vary enormously in their capacity to sound like plausible humans- with everything from random java code to come-hithers. I am not sure the bots all had photos, but if so this looks like a flaw in the experiment-surely we are prompted to respond by the appearance of the messenger as well as the message?

In any case, while the idea that we don’t know who we are communicating with online is not new, the idea that we don’t know what we are communicating with is a more troubling prospect.

For several years one of the ways I tried to keep match fit as a chess professional was to play blitz (typically 3 minutes per player per game) online. People using computers were supposed to have a (c) next to their name. In most cases I avoided those opponents and competed with fellow humans, but every so often I could detect some computer-like tendencies in their play(crudely, this meant good tactics but terrible strategy). At that point I would usually stop, and play somebody (or something!) else. In these cases the issue was not just that computers tend not to blunder(make decisive tactical errors) and therefore made it harder for me to win. It was also that the experience of ‘play’ was very different. It was as though my mind was still in gear, but my heart was no longer in it. I wanted a meeting of embodied minds, not just a meeting of moves.

I wonder if the same applies to social media. As Steve Fuller and others have argued, the boundary between human and machine is increasingly blurry. We are already cyborg-like and, if we are not careful, we may gradually sleep walk into a state of complete cyborgification. (I heartily recommend ‘Natural Born Cyborgs‘ by Andy Clark for those sympathetic to the view that humans have always been cyborgs- a stick is as much a tool as an I-phone.)

Postmodern literary theory sometimes suggests that ‘the author is dead‘, and that there is no fact of the matter about what text means or is meant to mean, only various forms of interpretation. Will this soon apply to blogs, tweets and texts?

As it becomes harder and harder to tell what we are communicating with, will we care less and less who or what is behind the communication? More likely, I think, is that it will matter more and more, and we will crave authentic contact with sentient, mortal human beings, tweeting or otherwise.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/ernestopriego Dr Ernesto Priego

    Interesting post. It’s true that spam bots (on Twitter and elsewhere) are getting more sophisticated, but savvy users can still detect spam easily. I spend my days blocking and reporting for spam on Twitter. 

    Perhaps a different category for the automation of human communication in social media at least are automated/scheduled tweets; written by humans but posted by software. These automated tweets do change the patterns in communication because there is no one behind them, at least not synchronically, to reply to them. 

    I’ve noticed on my blogs that spam bots are getting better at leaving plausible human comments. Back in the day the syntax was completely awkward and the content/meaning totally unrelated, but nowadays they seem to get content from the post itself and recombinate it in a readable sentence. It is only by analysing the URL, IP address or email address that one realises it’s phishing or spam…  

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Ernesto. Sounds quite troubling. I wonder if there are any specific aspects of communication that bots will struggle to get over; for instance humour, sarcasm etc…or is it just a case of them gradually getting more and more convincing as humans?