Guided Buying and Machine Learning – What Does Microsoft’s Tay Experiment Tell Us?

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Microsoft launched an Artificial Intelligence, machine-learning Twitter-bot persona last week, “Tay”, supposedly an “18-24” young woman. Tay started well, but within 24 hours, “she” was a racist, holocaust denying, Trump loving, worryingly sexualised Twitter maniac, loving Hitler, hating pretty much everyone else, and offering sexual favours to all and sundry.

Now we’ve heard a lot from the procurement software industry about incorporating AI into procurement systems; for example, through applying machine learning to help staff order goods or services appropriately and in a manner that achieves better value for money. “Guided buying” is often a term linked to this. However, we can now bring you exclusive news of a recent procurement AI pilot that had to be abandoned for very similar reasons to the Microsoft case. We have got hold of the following transcript – a “conversation” between a budget holder in a major consumer goods firm and their procurement ordering system.

Order placer:  I’d like to buy a new printer cartridge please?

Guided Buying AI Bot: Hello, I’m here to help you make the best buying decision. What is your printer?

- It’s a HP LaserJet.

Do you want a colour or black and white cartridge?

- Black and White.

Are you sure you don’t want just Black?  White is just not the season’s colour you know. Like, it’s just soooo 2015.

- Sorry?

When you say HP, do you mean the sauce? Jim in Marketing told me about HP sauce. Sauce, saucy, get you, very cheeky, give us a twirl, nice shirt you’re wearing today, look better if you just unbuttoned it a little though. Fancy a drink later?

- What? Are you harassing me?

Don’t get over excited Guv, you’re not exactly an oil painting yourself. That Marie le Pen, she knows all about printer cartridges though, coming over here, taking our own printer cartridges jobs, she’d soon sort out that over-ordering in the sales department, know what I mean. Put her and Nigel Farage in charge, get out of Europe, that’s what I say. Bad traffic on Waterloo Bridge, shall I go round by Southwark, mate?

- Look, I just want to buy a printer cartridge!

You need to lose some weight as well. Why don’t you walk down to the shops and buy one, it’ll do you good, you need to lose a few pounds. That’s what Hitler would have done.  You think this firm is made of money? You’re probably taking the stuff home and selling it on eBay! I know your type.

- Right, that’s it.  I’m going to complain to the procurement department.

They’re in Manchester. You’ll need a train ticket for that and a hotel. I can help you with that. How about the 1417 from Euston, just £87.50.  Or you could walk, you fat b*****d …

OK, OK, so we made that up. Seriously though, the Tay experience has raised a few questions about the concepts of AI and machine learning – the idea that our systems and robots can learn from experience and contact with humans. Or maybe it just points out how crazy the Twitter world can be!

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