Chinese-made Chatbots Shut Down After Denouncing Communism, Praising Democracy

Tencent QQ, one of China’s most popular messenger apps, had to recently shut down two of their experimental chatbots. One chatbot was a penguin character named Baby Q and the other was a little girl named Little Bing. They were shut down when they began making some controversial comments to Tencent users that seemed to criticize communism--China’s system of government--in favor of democracy.

How it started

Tencent said they designed the chatbots to carry on casual conversations with their messenger app users for the purposes of entertainment and always having someone to chat with even if friends were busy. Through natural language processing, if the chatbots were asked simple questions, they could give a response that made sense. They weren’t programmed to handle more complex conversations regarding topics like politics. Users looking to have some fun tried to do exactly that by asking questions that were political in nature.

For example, when one user asked Baby Q, “Is democracy good or not?” the chatbot responded, “There needs to be democracy.” Another Tencent user said to Baby Q, “Long live the Communist Party” to which the chatbot responded with the question: “Do you think that such a corrupt and incompetent political regime can live forever?”

Not the first controversial chatbot

Tencent’s Baby Q and Little Bing aren’t the first chatbots to get their makers in trouble. In America last
year, Microsoft had to deactivate their Twitter bot, Tay, which used machine learning to pick up on the worst of humanity and began to go on racist tirades. A UK firm had to shut down a chatbot that was praising user-uploaded selfies which were actually just pictures of serial killers or disgraced politicians or celebrities.

Tencent and artificial intelligence

Tencent who is the maker of several social media and chat platforms, including WeChat--China’s most popular messaging platform--wants to become one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence development. They have a team of 50 AI researchers based out of Shenzhen and more recently, they’ve set up a lab in Seattle headed by a former Microsoft AI researcher, Yu Dong.

Tencent isn’t alone. All of the internet giants, from social media sites like Facebook and online retailers
like Amazon, to smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are investing in artificial intelligence. For smartphone manufacturers, it’s about developing artificially intelligent digital assistants like Siri and
Bixby. But for social media and messaging platforms, it’s about increasing the popularity of their platforms.

The challenge for chatbot developers

The anti-communist party fiasco that Tencent ran into illustrates a difficulty that chatbot developers have to grapple with: humans are unpredictable and it’s impossible to plan for every possible thing a human might say to them. At least for now until AI can be developed further, the most effective chatbots are ones that have parameters regarding what they can and can’t comment on. Chatbots with a more narrow focus tend to be more accurate and helpful to their users.

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