When Chatbots Go Wild, Who Should You Believe?
We need better explanations—and guardrails
In 1987, then-CEO of Apple Computer, John Sculley, unveiled a vision that he hoped would cement his legacy as more than just a former purveyor of soft drinks. Keynoting at the EDUCOM conference, he presented a 5-minute, 45-second video of a product that built upon some ideas he had presented in his autobiography the previous year. (They were hugely informed by computer scientist Alan Kay, who then worked at Apple.) Sculley called it the Knowledge Navigator.
The video is a two-hander playlet. The main character is a snooty UC Berkeley university professor. The other is a bot, living inside what we’d now call a foldable tablet. The bot appears in human guise—a young man in a bow tie—perched in a window on the display. Most of the video involves the professor conversing with the bot, which seems to have access to a vast store of online knowledge, the corpus of all human scholarship, and also all of the professor’s personal information—so much so can that it can infer the relative closeness of relationships in the professor’s life.
When the action begins, the professor is belatedly preparing that afternoon’s lecture about deforestation in the Amazon, a task made possible only because the bot is doing much of the work. It calls up new research—and then digs up more upon the professor’s prompts—and even proactively contacts his colleague so he can wheedle her into popping into the session later on. (She’s on to his tricks but agrees.) Meanwhile, the bot diplomatically helps the prof avoid his nagging mother. In less than six minutes, all is ready, and he pops out for a pre-lecture lunch. The video fails to predict that the bot might one day come along in a pocket-sized supercomputer.
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