The Facebook chatbot controversy highlights how paranoid people are about life with robots and A.I.

Photo by Paul Marotta

Oh how quickly fear metastasizes.

This week, a Facebook research project involving chatbots has become fodder for some dramatic headlines, many alluding to scary versions of what a future with advanced artificial intelligence may hold:

"Facebook AI creates its own language in creepy preview of our potential future"

"Creepy Facebook bots talked to each other in a secret language"

"Facebook engineers panic, pull plug on AI after bots develop their own language"

But many of the Facebook chatbot headlines actually mischaracterize what happened. According to a lead researcher on that AI bot project, Dhruv Batra, his Facebook and Twitter news feeds were "blown up with articles describing apocalyptic doomsday scenarios."

"While the idea of AI agents inventing their own language may sound alarming/unexpected to people outside the field, it is a well-established sub-field of AI," Batra writes on his Facebook page, noting that research demonstrating this goes back "decades."

Batra also says the team stopped the bots because the experiment required the chatbots to speak English, not because there was something nefarious going on.

Yet people are still worked up, some even paranoid about AI.

In fact, people are more afraid of "computers replacing people in the workforce" and "technology [they] don't understand" than they are about things like ghosts, blood and even their significant others cheating on them, according to the most recent Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

Mark Cuban: AI will produce the world’s first trillionaires
Mark Cuban: AI will produce the world’s first trillionaires

That the conversation around a bot research project could so quickly spin out of control illustrates what a lightning rod artificial intelligence has become.

Even tech titans of Silicon Valley are divided about a future integrated with AI.

Elon Musk recently put forth his own doomsday scenario. "I have exposure to the most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned by it," says Musk, speaking to a roomful of governors last month.

"AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not — they were harmful to a set of individuals within society, of course, but they were not harmful to society as a whole," he says.

Batra's boss, Mark Zuckerberg, calls such fearful warnings "irresponsible."

"I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic," says Zuckerberg. "I think you can build things and the world gets better. But with AI especially, I am really optimistic. And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios — I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible."

See also:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Elon Musk's doomsday AI predictions are 'pretty irresponsible'

Elon Musk: 'Robots will be able to do everything better than us'

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates think it's 'crazy' to view job-stealing robots as bad

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Why AI won't wipe out humanity ... yet
Why AI won't wipe out humanity ... yet