Microsoft patents, but has no plans to use, AI-based ‘Black Mirror’ chatbots built from dead people’s social media data and messages

Microsoft Chatbots Patent
Microsoft secures patent for chatbots but won’t use them. Pic credit: Tawanda Razika/Pixabay

Microsoft recently won a rather eerie patent for chatbots creation. Basically, the company imagined a way to converse with dead people. A senior Microsoft General Manager has now indicated that Microsoft has no plans in the near future to develop products based on the patent.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (US PTO) awarded Microsoft a patent that details a method for creating a conversational chatbot modeled after a specific person. The patent mentions chatbots can be based on a “past or present entity … such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure.”

Microsoft secures patent that allows AI to craft a chatbot with a person’s personality:

Microsoft won the chatbot patent last month. Complex mathematics and algorithms apart, the patent essentially highlights the creation of chatbots from people’s “social data”.

The patent outlines methods that draw specific character traits, nature, personality, and conversational skills from a person’s (dead or alive) information. Social data would include images, social media posts, messages, voice data, and written letters from the chosen individual.

Microsoft’s patents how the company would feed the data to an AI computer or model. The model would then craft a chatbot that would, in theory, be able to “converse and interact in the personality of the specific person.”

In addition to the AI-derived personality, the chatbot would also draw information from the Internet. The chatbot would only turn to the Internet in case the person’s social data doesn’t have the relevant information.

The patent states, “Conversing in the personality of a specific person may include determining and/or using conversational attributes of the specific person, such as style, diction, tone, voice, intent, sentence/dialogue length and complexity, topic and consistency, as well as using behavioral attributes such as interests and opinions and demographic information such as age, gender, and profession.”

Microsoft management agrees the idea of AI-based chatbots modeled from dead people’s information is ‘disturbing’:

The AI-crafted chatbot is reminiscent of a fictional app in the TV series “Black Mirror”. Needless to say, the internet did not react kindly to the patent’s news.

Now Tim O’Brien, Microsoft’s general manager of AI programs has sent out a couple of Tweets against the chatbot patent. He essentially agrees the chatbot idea is “disturbing”.

More importantly, however, Tim has indicated that Microsoft doesn’t have any plans in the near future to act on the patent. In other words, Microsoft may have merely secured a patent, but will not build a chatbot that talks like real people.

Tim also indicated that the patent predates the “AI ethics reviews we do today.” He was referring to the company’s Office of Responsible AI and an AI, Ethics, and Effects in Engineering and Research Committee. The office essentially acts as an internal watchdog and guidance counselor for intended uses of inventions.

Chatbots with dead people’s personalities do sound creepy and ominous. However, the underlying technology does have many beneficial uses.

Microsoft’s patent hints at multiple possibilities using algorithms and AI. It mentions creating virtual models of real people. These “avatars” would appear to be far more real than the current generation AI-based chatbots.

Additionally, such technologies could help to apply voice and facial recognition algorithms to recordings, images, and videos. Multiple agencies could then create a voice and 2D or 3D model of a real person. Chatbots created with such technologies could have much better conversational skills and other human traits such as compassion, empathy, etc.

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