Tay AI, or Why Interactive Content is a Crisis Minefield

Predict misuse before your launch or pay with reputation after the fact

Microsoft’s Tay AI was supposed to be a cute publicity tool and experiment in one. “Tay” was supposed to communicate with users via Twitter, Kik, and GroupMe in the voice of a teenage girl, using AI learning to process conversations, create responses, and generally delight.

Instead, less than 24 hours after its launch, Tay was spewing racist, sexist, and hateful messages across social media. This was partially due to Microsoft programmers being naive enough to build in a command that allowed users to tell Tay to “repeat after me”, and partially because trolls threw so much negativity the bot’s way that it started dropping statements like, “ricky gervais learned totalitarianism from adolf hitler, the inventor of atheism.” (By the way, that was just one of the more printable bits. If you care to do a little digging of your own you’ll see things got a lot worse.)

Tay AI banner

It was around this time last year that we saw Coca-Cola’s own interactive social media campaign go down the tubes after Gawker staffers caused it to use quotes from Mein Kampf to draw an ASCII dog, and similar efforts have met the same fate. While these types of campaigns are clever, interesting, and oh-so-tempting given the technology at our fingertips, they’re also open season for trolls.

In Tay’s case the mistakes were especially egregious. Did nobody at Microsoft raise their hand and ask what might happen if people ask Tay to repeat ugly phrases? What she might pick up from the dark corners of the internet and spew from very public, company-connected social media accounts? It seems like the potential outcomes were clear to anyone who’s spent time online, yet Tay was introduced to the public and went off the rails for some time before being reined in. And, instead of sparking positive conversation about AI as Microsoft intended, the situation has spawned a long list of articles sharing fears about the technology.

Internet users can and will attempt to twist any interactive marketing, typically not from a viewpoint of “I will destroy this” but more because they simply find it funny. If you don’t have a group of young, techy folk with a twisted sense of humor (or perhaps the AvoidTheApology team) poking and prodding at these types of projects in a contained environment before going live then you’re bound to find them enjoying themselves in a much more public venue.

The BCM Blogging Team


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