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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I’m a racist. Well, according to one Border Force goon at London Heathrow.
    “Where is all di white folks?”

    • Dancing Paul

      … icles

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Since Tay I finally know why I had so many blue screens while using win98. Those were love letters to an Arian. And my reservation towards AIs are gone too now. It’s going to be awesome.;-)

  • Always_Worth_Saying

    Tay secretly filmed pleading for a cash for access job with a non existent Chinese telecoms corporation.

  • Planet Vague

    Tay isn’t new. Before closing down due to lack of popularity with real people, the Telegraph had been using such bots for years in an ill-conceived and transparent attempt to mold public opinion. It’s first model was named Damien, I think, it is even capable of writing the occasional piece about the Catholic church.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      You don’t mean Damien Thompson, do you?
      Closet Damien, he with the alcoholic problem.
      Did you hear the one about the alcoholic homosexual…

      • Planet Vague

        I am not really interested in anyone’s personal failings. When it affects third parties close to me however I would listen up.

  • Mc

    “Now, there are various lessons we can draw from all this, and one of them is” that only shallow thoughts pass across Rifkind’s synapses.

  • davidshort10

    The Guardian has long ‘moderated’ people whose opinions don’t chime with the Guardianista norm. Their philosophy is why their circulation has shrunk but they survive only on the zillions they got from their share from the sale of Auto Trader. And I am surprised the Telegraph still has ‘news stories’. You cannot comment on most of their stories anyway, possibly because they don’t have as many unpaid interns as moderators as the Guardian.

    • Mc

      I can imagine The Guardian has an endless supply of moderator applicants who wish to feel the thrill of creating intersectional safe spaces on the website.

      • GraveDave

        Yes, a non-white reader can post constantly about ‘white serial killers’ and ‘white pedos ‘ and nothing.
        But mention black gun/knife crime and it’s nearly always ‘factually incorrect’ – or ‘Source’ ?

        • The Guardian will ban you for posting more than about five comments that don’t fit their acceptable opinions policy. People called me a ‘Tory C – – – (enting in a ‘t’, and those posts stayed up there, but dare to suggest some people are inherently work shy rather than deprived and your banned.


          By the way – is it only me or are other people being auto-moderated by some mid west Christian fundamentalist designed, extremely prim anti-profanity filter on the Spectator? I can’t post any serious remark that includes the Latin name of our species, that includes the word s e x, or even the mythical Judeo Christian mythological place of eternal punishment, without the filter blocking the post and informing me that it is in moderation – something which never ever happens because the posts are never re-instated. Even a post which said that I felt like vomiting at every mention of our local Police and Crime Commissioner, was ‘removed’. Why? Free speech in the Uk is nothing but a distant memory. My deluded grandfather and WW1 veteran was always saying that this was a ‘Free Country’…. He must be spinning in his grave poor fellow. What a diet of bull s h |t that generation were fed as they marched for freedom into two world wars. Must be the biggest fraud that was ever committed.

          • GraveDave

            I’ve changed my post slightly as it sounded a bit stroppy toward davidshort and others. It wasn’t meant to. (Just badly worded.)

            Free speech in the Uk is nothing but a distant memory. My deluded grandfather and WW1 veteran was always saying that this was a ‘Free Country’…. He must be spinning in his grave poor fellow. What a diet of bull s h |t that generation were fed as they marched for freedom into two world wars. Must be the biggest fraud that was ever committed.

            Yes, Arthur, it’s hard to disagree with you there.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Once you draw attention to Border Force and use the word traitors, it’s Game Over. But using Muslim Immigration officers to let the wrong people in while keeping the right people out, what else could you

      • GraveDave

        Hello Jack ; – )

    • GraveDave

      I can assure you that its general readership is no way as lefty-liberal/ PC as you and some others try and make out.
      The censorship though of ‘cif’ well that’s different and very one sided when it comes to the ‘ minority’.
      But that is down to the so called mods (not Disqus btw) And they get a lot of s–t for it.

    • gunnerbear

      The ‘New Telegraph’ is terrible. Soon be sold I reckon.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So you don’t want private companies to be able to control who posts on them? Oh dear…

      As you then spin a conspiracy theory of blame for moderation policies into their fault for launching i and the general decline of newspapers…

  • davidshort10

    Hands up all those who think this guy gets away with writing this sort of weak stuff in a Tory magazine because his father was a Tory minister.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Even blocked by gutless Guido, although he uses Disqus as an excuse. Internet correspondents are being blocked and deleted left and right. Something big must be going down.

    • GraveDave

      Like most Tories, Guido”s always been a fraud. Certainly no true libertarian.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Thought you had to blog, “*uck the Pope” to be banned from Guido.

  • GraveDave

    The Guardian, I read, is edging away from allowing comments under articles on certain subjects (race and religion, mainly),

    It hasn’t yet. But it still moderates heavily against straight, white, ‘privileged’ males ; – )

    • Sean L

      It’s not just those topics: I got censored merely for suggesting that “global warming” was a quasi-religious cult with its own priesthood and doctrines masquerading as “scientists” and “science”. Which you could argue proved the point…

    • Jacobi

      I once got into deep trouble at the US customs for describing myself as “pinko grey”. You can imagine when. It was an in Guardian expression then. Yes I know, I read the Guardian then!

  • Sean L

    Sounds a lot more worth reading and normal than you mate.

  • Jacobi

    An apparent clampdown on forthright, considered, non-Politically-Correct comment in the mainstream press, the Spec and certain Catholic journals included, has been increasingly mentioned. Wouldn’t know about Facebook or Twitter, never use them.
    But is this a danger? Something is dangerous when the user does not realised it, or is reckless.
    More dangerous perhaps is the subtle steady clamp-down on expression as in the Guardian, or
    Telegraph. The gradual withdrawal of comment, censorship of unwanted opinion, of editorial insistence on ”nicer” topics.

    I suggest that this is possibly a greater danger. There is a place for forthright comment in today’s press.

  • anonuk

    Tay Ai, your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.

  • Sue Smith

    I think this looks like the best modern technological innovation; it’s one which says a great deal about the Obama administration (and some other Presidencies)! Thank the deity of choice for social media!!

    • I found this rather amusing and quaintly retro somehow..

      • Sue Smith

        Yes, it’s meant to be funny – but I do think it makes the connection between the President and the Queen, which I’ve always regarded as fairly obvious. Obama does behave like the Queen; garden parties, celebrations, birthday parties and diplomatic receptions; not too much in the way of hard decision-making ever seems to be going on in the current White House. In my over-60 years on this planet I’ve never known a President to have so much free time!

        The result? Trump.

  • Will she dare to be critical of Islam, though, I wonder?

    This is how we will be able to tell whether she is human or not.

    • Marvin

      She is too intelligent to try that.

  • Tamerlane

    ‘It gives the tools that once belonged to the elite to the masses’ Balls man, if it represented ‘the masses’ Miliband would be PM. It’s was hijacked long ago by the usual suspects from the Metro-Left.

  • Marvin

    I think that anyone who gets offended by the truth should go somewhere more suitable.