Arguments are Stateless Conversations

Lt. Pike’s actions, and the reactions to his actions, made me think of this exceprt from the book The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. It’s part of a discussion of how AI researchers are attempting to create chat programs that effectively mimic human conversation. (pgs. 53-55) Italics his, bold mine.

Not all human conversations function in this way, but many do, and it behooves AI researchers to determine which types of conversations are “stateless”—that is, with each remark depending only on the last—and to attempt to create these very sorts of interactions. It’s our job…as humans, to resist it.

One of the classic stateless conversation types, it turns out, is verbal abuse.

In 1989, twenty-year-old University College Dublin undergraduate Mark Humphrys connects a chatbot program he’d written called MGonz to his university’s computer network and leaves the building for the day. A user (screen name “SOMEONE”) from Drake University in Iowa tentatively sends the message “finger” to Humphry’s account—an early-Internet command that acts as a request for basic information about a user. To SOMEONE’S surprise, a response comes back immediately: “cut this cryptic shit speak in full sentences.” This begins an argument between SOMEONE and MGonz that will last almost an hour and a half.

(The best part is undoubtedly when SOMEONE says, a mere twenty minutes in, “you sound like a goddamn robot that repeats everything.”)

Returning to the lab the next morning, Humphrys is stunned to find the logs, and feels a strange, ambivalent emotion. His program might have just passed the Turing test, he thinks—but the evidence is so profane that he’s afraid to publish it.

Humphry’s twist…was to model his program, rather than on an attentive listener, on an abusive jerk. When it lacks any clear cue for what to say, MGonz falls back not on therapy cliches like “How does that make you feel?” or “Tell me more about that” but on things like “you are obviously an asshole,” “ok that’s it im not talking to you any more,” or “ah type something interesting or shut up.” It’s a stroke of genius, because, as becomes painfully clear from reading the MGonz transcripts, argument is stateless.

…In fact, since reading the papers on MGonz, and its transcripts, I find myself much more able to constructively manage heated conversations. Aware of their stateless, knee-jerk character, I recognize that the terse remark I want to blurt has far more to do with some kind of “reflex” to the very last sentence of the conversation than it does with either the actual issue at hand or the person I’m talking to. All of a sudden the absurdity and ridiculousness of this kind of escalation become quantitatively clear, and, contemptuously unwilling to act like a bot, I steer myself toward a more “stateful” response: better living through science.