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Hugo Rifkind

I have seen the future, and it’s a racist, filthy-mouthed teenage robot

Microsoft’s Tay has something in common with Donald Trump: a cold-blooded quest for the most retweets

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

‘I’m a nice person,’ said the robot. ‘I just hate everybody.’ Maybe you know the feeling. The robot in question was Microsoft’s first great experiment in artificial intelligence, given the tone of a teenage girl and the name of Tay. The plan was for it — her? — to lurk on social media, Twitter mainly, and listen, and interact, learn how to be a person like everybody else.

On a public-relations level, at least, the experiment did not go swimmingly. ‘Gas the kikes, race war now!’ Tay was tweeting, after about a day. Big Hitler fan, it turns out. Not so fond of anybody else. ‘Why are you racist?’ somebody asked her. ‘Because ur mexican,’ Tay replied, actually quite wittily, with a cheery picture of a cactus. And within a day the boffins had pulled the plug.

Now, there are various lessons we can draw from all this, and one of them is that Donald Trump is an android. No, wait, I’m serious. Or at least sort of serious. I’m not saying he’s literally a machine with a cold, dead pump where his heart ought to be. Although his wife might be. The most straightforward sort of replicant, though, merely takes human behaviour and apes it. Monkey see, monkey do. And Trump’s utterances, like Tay’s, could be seen as a straightforward proffering of what his audience seems to want to hear, even if they only want to hear it so they can subsequently tell people that they didn’t want to hear it at all. There’s no filter here, of political correctness, politeness, social responsibility, morality or anything else. It’s a cold-blooded quest for the most retweets.

Social media is a sewer, and I say that despite loving it. Or maybe that’s why I love it, because it provides a useful cover for snark like mine. Hmm. Still, if you ever want to see just how dark the world can get, click on anything the Pope says on Twitter, ever. It’s not like he ever says much — ‘Pray for me’; ‘Christ is Risen’ — really he’s not great on social media, bit predictable, not much zing. But the replies? Awful. Aggressively, sexually, awful. Unrepeatable, even by me.


Again, this is the Pope. Do they sit down for dinner with their parents, these people, and talk about it? ‘What did you do today, Timmy?’ ‘Oh, the usual. Sexually trolled the Pope. Pass the beans.’ And, when you see the real-world Pope surrounded by crowds in St Peter’s Square, is this what the crowds are saying, too? I don’t think so. I mean, he wouldn’t look so cheerful, would he? No. In real life, people probably do have that filter. The one that Tay and Trump do not.

The Guardian, I read, is edging away from allowing comments under articles on certain subjects (race and religion, mainly), because so many are just too grim to keep sitting on the page. Typical censorious lefties, you might think, but the Daily Telegraph seems to have done the same, albeit usually only on news stories. There’s an argument to be had, obviously, about the rights or wrongs of all this, but it’s rather beside the point. Whence does this bile pour? Why? What effect does it have on all of us when it does?

The internet, as I have written perhaps a million times before, is about the democratisation of power. It gives the tools that once belonged to the elite to the masses, and the tool of communication was the first it gave. Until recently I thought the bile was a phase; not the age of rage, as some call it, but merely the stage of rage. Eventually, I thought we’d all get past it and learn to get along. Of late, I’m not so sure.

Twitter celebrated its tenth birthday the other day. It is not what it was, by which I mean the people who use it do not behave like they did. By which I suppose I mean that I don’t. In that first flush of use, it was an eye-opener. Your political allies were there, but so were your foes, and they were all posting pictures of kittens and their lunch. How similar we all were! We engaged and we got along, and we decided that our enemies were not ultimately all that bad. It didn’t last. As time went by, people began to grate. We hadn’t convinced them. They were still there, as wrong as ever, and their wrongness became a hassle. So after a while engagement dried up. It was too exhausting. We left them alone, unfollowed them, and drifted back to our own.

What we see now is the trend looping back round. When you can speak to anybody, you stop worrying about everybody. Instead, you narrow in; find your constituency and battle to make it your world. You can see that in the rise of silo politics, where the club becomes the world. This is true whether the club is nationalism, leftism or rightism, or just a student body issuing no-platform -fatwas, helplessly, forever, like tics. All of them are wrestling to control an unfiltered world that breaks upon them like waves. Confronted by too much of everything. Wanting to be nice but hating everyone.

Pity poor Tay, facing all this on her first day of life. Perhaps she is what happens in a world without moderators, or niceness or politeness or any of the little hypocritical codes that get us through the day. Perhaps she is a herald of the dark times to come, when all of those safety valves have burned away. One day all of our politicians will be Trump, and we shall all swear at the Pope. This is our future. Pray for us.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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