Artificial intelligence meets natural weirdness
I think this is a fascinating story. Man, name of Jim Wightman, appears from nowhere with plans to launch a phalanx of intelligent chatbots onto the ‘net, in order to sniff out paedophiles getting their jollies in chat-rooms. The story isn’t the hackneyed one of paedophile paranoia, though. It’s far stranger and more interesting than that.
Wightman’s story hit the media initially because of the claims he was making about his chat-bots. Seems that he’d claimed they represented the most advanced AI ever developed. To their embarrassment, both New Scientist and the BBC (among others) bought his story whole, without even the simplest application of scepticism.
And then more AI-savvy questions began to be raised, Wightman’s claims and credentials were given a little more scrutiny, and his story began to fall apart. The best account of the narrative is provided at waxy.org.
The crucial point here is that had Wightman achieved what he claimed he’d achieved, AI would be effectively solved as a discipline. To construct a piece of software that’s capable of interacting undetected with humans (a paraphrase of the famous Turing test) necessarily involves a massively rich awareness of language, logic, world-knowledge, and so on and so on. It’s hard, as anyone who’s worked in real AI for any length of time (unlike Wightman, it seems) learns pretty quick. You can cheat a little with simple techniques, but they won’t get you very far. Genuinely state-of-the-art chat-bots, which compete each year for the Loebner Prize, are still first steps in the right direction.
As Wightman was pressed for evidence, even as little as a broad description of the techniques his system is using, he began a dance of evasion and backpedalling that’s still going on. You can follow the latest at his own site, chatnannies.com.
So what’s happening here? What’s not in question is that Wightman doesn’t have anything like what he’s claiming he has. So what’s he doing? My guess is that the paedophile angle is just a Macguffin. What he’s after is attention. This is a resolutely internet-age story.