If you use Facebook, you might have noticed in the last few weeks a number of bizarre posts from an app called What Would I Say. It was implemented by a team of grad-students in a hackathon in Princeton less than three weeks ago, and it’s the latest internet trend to spread like wildfire. What Would I Say is yet another addition to the frugality, non-seriousness, of online social networks. But worse yet, it highlights a technology which might finally undermine the possibility of any genuine online interaction at all: social bots.
What Would I Say is a bot that screens your Facebook posts, builds a probabilistic model for sequences of words, and outputs the most likely sequence. The idea is not new, since there’s an equivalent for Twitter, called That Can Be My Next Tweet. So far these apps have been mainly a source of entertainment — producing ironic sentences such as “we can’t do it,” from Barack Obama’s posts — but there are already attempts to use the technology seriously: according to a BBC article published last week, Google just patented a bot to mimic a person’s behavior in online social networks.
That’s disappointing. While the technology behind social bots do have high scientific value — mainly in the context of Natural Language Processing — attempts to seriously turn these ideas into products are repugnant, not because models to generate text are still in rudimentary stage — which they are — but because it makes the internet a lot less humane than it already is.
In fact, the low audience of attempts to seriously discuss relevant issues with friends online, and the hostility of conversations with strangers in web forums, make it very stressful the effort of getting anything meaningful from online interactions. Knowing that what remains of those interactions might be realized by a computer algorithm will only further erode online conversations, to the point none will be left.
Twenty years ago Peter Steiner published a cartoon on The New Yorker in which a dog says to another: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s unbelievable that some people are taking the statement seriously. Aren’t the automatic birthday messages from local business already annoying enough? How good would you feel to discover that the nice birthday message sent by your crush on Facebook was actually written by a bot?
The faking of one’s feelings towards others is already implemented online by those who display such behavior in the real world. We don’t need bots to create more false expectations on people. Bots are great to find things, and organize data. Having them to mimic our social behavior online will only cause the social aspect of the internet to vanish.
(A version of this article appeared in