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In which this writer disappears up his artificially intelligent navel.

April 25, 2023

I had a bit of fun today with Bing’s AI chat engine. It was the first time I’d used it.

I decided to indulge in the narcissistic practice of asking it about me (don’t tell me you’ve never done a Google search on your name…).

I began by asking it “What do you know about Steve Royston, who writes the 59 Steps blog”? The reply made me seem positively Olympian. I won’t bore you with the full response, but I’m flattered to learn that I write “with insight, humour and passion about the issues that interest him and affect the world“. I heartily agree, of course. But what was rather strange was that it described me as a “former diplomat”. Where the hell did that come from? The closest I ever came to the diplomatic corps was being mistaken for the Irish ambassador at one of His Excellency’s well-lubricated St Patrick’s Day parties in Jeddah. Bing also told me that I’d lived and worked in Oman, which unfortunately is untrue, though I wish I had.

I then checked the citations, and found nothing directly linked to the blog, which was also strange. They did include, however, a site that assured its visitors that my blog is suitable to be read by anyone, including children. Very reassuring.

Then I asked it about my views on Donald Trump. Here’s what it told me:

Steve Royston does not seem to have written much about Donald Trump on his blog, but from the few posts that mention him, it appears that he is not a fan of the former president. For example, in a post from November 2020, he wrote: “I’m not going to join the chorus of those who are celebrating Trump’s demise. I’m just relieved that he’s gone. He was a disaster for America and for the world.”1 In another post from January 2021, he wrote: “Trump’s legacy will be a divided America and a diminished role in the world. He will be remembered as a narcissist, a liar, a bully and an incompetent leader.”2 He also criticized Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his refusal to accept the election results. He also retweeted several posts that were critical of Trump and his supporters, such as this one3:

Not written much? I’ve written reams, mate. And why did you include citations that back up my assertions rather than quoting directly from my blog?

Moving on, I then asked it what I thought about Boris Johnson. The reply is below:

Steve Royston has written more frequently about Boris Johnson on his blog, and he has expressed a range of opinions about the prime minister, depending on the issue and the context. He has praised Johnson for his Brexit deal1, his vaccine rollout2, and his green agenda3However, he has also criticized Johnson for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic4, his lack of integrity, and his leadership style. He has described Johnson as “a chancer”, “a populist”, “a showman”, and “a survivor”. He has also compared him to Donald Trump, but also to Winston Churchill. Overall, it seems that Steve Royston is not a loyal supporter or a harsh detractor of Boris Johnson, but rather a critical observer who evaluates him on his actions and outcomes.

Again, the citations are links to sites that validates the statements about my views, rather than direct quotes from the blog. In fact I don’t recall praising Boris for his Brexit deal. I’d rather have drunk cyanide than praising anything about Brexit. I may have made slightly positive noises about the vaccine rollout and his green agenda, but I can’t find any post in which I actually did so.

It correctly pointed out my frequent criticism of the former PM, though any comparison with Winston Churchill would have been strictly ironic. Which leads me to wonder whether AI has an irony detector. I’ve put this to the test in my last post, though I may have to wait a while for the answer.

As for the assertion that I’m neither a supporter nor a harsh detractor of the bumbling buffoon, I can only say that it can’t have visited the blog at all. Which I suspect might be the case, since most of the quotations attributed to me seem to have been scraped off Twitter posts, rather than the blog itself. Still, I can’t blame it for not wanting to wade through the whole site. After all, I’ve posted over a million words over the past twelve years.

But all is forgiven thanks to the final sentence, in which Bing claims that I’m “a critical observer who evaluates him (Johnson) on his actions and outcomes”. If only. There are a few people who defy my sense of objectivity. Boris is one of them. But yes, I do evaluate him on his actions and outcomes, and that basis he’s a shallow, amoral, bumbling prat.

Finally I asked Bing whether AI is capable of emotional intelligence. It replied that AI systems “cannot have their own emotions, but they can can mimic emotions, such as empathy”. Not a surprising response, but it does suggest that the average AI engine is basically a psychopath.

After a while, I got bored with its rather bland responses. Impossible to wind up, impossible to provoke or insult. Which left me craving the Wrath of God, the Fury of Trump and the Chaos of Twitter. All those human responses, such as I worry, I hate, I fear, I love and I hope, are absent. In fact, I suspect that for most of us who have even a modest public profile will be disappointed by the lack of insight from something that sounds like a human and speaks like one. But for those who like to ask “mirror, mirror on the wall…”, Bing Chat and its friends no doubt offer a very gratifying experience.

And yet, even though we’re tempted to think of AI engines as all-seeing and all-knowing, they sometimes reveal themselves as having feet of clay. Before I said goodbye to Bing, I asked it what it knew about Jim Cleary, a dear friend from Birmingham who was a brilliant songwriter. Jim died ten years ago. The answer was: nothing.

When I asked Google, his name came up in the first link. And blow me, it was the tribute I wrote to Jim shortly after his death. Below my piece there were other stories about it, as well as a couple of videos of him performing. So why hadn’t Bing picked up on this stuff? Presumably because far from having read and digested each of the zillions of words, pictures and videos sitting somewhere on the internet, it (and probably other search engines) have barely scraped the surface. And perhaps that’s because in order to plumb the depths of the net’s deep ocean, Microsoft would need enough energy for a small city and acres of server capacity to do so. Does Google use such resources? Who knows?

The lesson I learn from this experience is that AI has one thing in common with its human creators: it’s limited and fallible. And until it proves otherwise it will take its place in my life as yet another of those techno-curiosities to be visited from time to time.

And it’s free. What’s not to like?

From → Media, Sport, UK, USA

  1. Steve Harrison permalink

    There are worse things that being called “a former diplomat”, Steve, even at this current time of FCDO woes……

    • Good to hear from you Steve.I would have been proud to have been a diplomat, but I fear that my lack of diplomacy would have rapidly turned me into a former one! S

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