Where did the chatbot hear that?

The buzz over more than the last year in cyberspace has been arguably buzzier than we’ve seen in a while. It is the buzz about AI chatbots, the highest profile one at the moment being ChatGPT and its peripheral functions, created by OpenAI.

The buzz has been triggered by ChatGPT’s abilities in several areas. One is ChatGPT’s ability to come up with plausible answers to questions, and in English bordering on human-created text.

Another is its amazing ability to come up with things in diverse styles such as haiku and rap on demand.

Yet another is ChatGPT’s ability to make breathtakingly stupid factual mistakes, some being total fabrications, which have come to be called hallucinations, but that could still fool unwary and credulous chatbot-struck users. A related problem is its own credulity in believing leading questions and producing responses that rely on falsehoods and mischaracterizations in questions put to it.

These aspects of ChatGPT’s behavior aside, the appearance of such chatbots means that humans must pay more attention to credibility and accountability than ever before.

If a human friend tells you something that is not only shocking but incredible in the true sense of the word, you can ask the friend “Where in the world did you hear that?” And if your friend says she heard it from YouTube, you might be just a bit skeptical. If she learned it from a certain highly opinionated podcaster known for promoting conspiracy theories, you might start to wonder about the trustworthiness of that friend’s statement, including statements about other subjects. But you should be thankful that your human friend is at least willing and able to reveal the source of her information, enabling you to evaluate it. That’s where AI chatbots part ways with the real world.

ChatGPT and its like collect information from countless Internet sources, some good, some not-so-good, and some totally wrong. The learning process is an opaque and impenetrable black box. You might wonder what sources were used to generate a totally fabricated and factually incorrect account of events that you know is wrong; or about what sources were used to generate a true, useful response. You might not care if you know the answer to the question you asked and are only window-shopping for chatbot failure stories to post online.

But what about when you ask ChatGPT or its now-multiplying wannabe clones a non-trivial question you don’t know the answer to? If the chatbot gives you a plausible-sounding answer, you or others might believe it and could make decisions based on the chatbot response.

I have experimented numerous times with some leading questions I know the answers to; ChatGPT failed miserably in too many cases to repair the damage already done to its reputation with me. Getting facts wrong about events that are not likely to affect our lives or fortunes is one thing. Fabricating answers to questions that are more important, however, is potentially very dangerous.

Since AI chatbots learn from what humans have written on the Internet, the quality of what the humans write is even more important than before. When you consider that much of what is written on the Internet is not even written by fully identified humans, the potential problems come into focus. It is important to be able to know and evaluate the sources of an AI chatbot’s learning. But before that, it would be better if the chatbot itself could know and evaluate the sources of the information from which it is learning, thereby front-loading quality into its knowledge base and, by extension, its responses. The anonymity and lack of accountability that has long been a characteristic of Internet information makes that quite difficult.

That anonymity and lack of accountability is a problem even when chatbots are learning from human-sourced information. But when chatbots start flooding the Internet with their own content, sometimes helped along by humans who trusted them, will chatbots effectively start learning from other chatbots that themselves have learned from not-very-learned humans or even from other chatbots? The image of multiplying mops in Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind. Let the believer beware.