It’s 1977. The Goblin Teasmade advert is on television screens, Punk is hitting the UK streets and Clifton Country Primary (CCP) are engaged in the dying embers of a grudge soccer match against arch pre-teen rivals, Mayfield. It’s nil-nil. 

CCP have just brought on a substitute, Steven Roundtree. He’s new to the team and it turns out new to the rules of English football but fresh legs are required. The diminutive Mayfield goalie takes several strides back in a studied run-up to the last goal kick of the game.

Insanely, Roundtree charges towards the spot and rockets the ball into the top right corner of the Mayfield net, before screaming back up the wing, fists pumping, anticipating the schoolboy pats, hugs, plaudits that never come.

I thought of Steven Roundtree when I read about the Racist Robot debacle, this week. If the story hasn’t somehow hit your Facebook-curated news algorithm, it centres around a Microsoft PR techno-wheeze which spectacularly backfired in the megacorp’s face.

The software leviathan was not to know that releasing a machine-learning program, known as ‘Tay’ into the internet wild to ‘improve customer service’ would have the equivalent effect of putting Attila the Hun in charge of the Brexit campaign.

Within hours, a bunch of horrible trolls got hold of the algorithm and poisoned the innocent Tay with nazi invective.

Within hours of letting the new-born bot loose on Twitter, teen-voiced Tay’s timeline was transformed from saccharine-sweet tweets like ‘humans are super cool’ to a more jackboot-stomping cadence, fuelled with anti-social juvenile vitriol such as ‘her’ now infamous tweet, ‘Hitler was right’.

All this on the same day that tech-beat BBC radio journeyman, Rory Cellan-Jones was allowed a segment on the highbrow Today Programme with Siri reading out the news to highlight some esoteric story about how ‘bots’ (wtf, asks Radio 4 listener Missus Lampeter of 1 Acacia Drive, Eastcote) are the new apps.

If the Beeb had waited a few hours, it could have had Tay vomiting out the news in a kind of techno-tourets.

The Meta story here is that most Internet of Things (IoT). No longer a geek boy plaything, IoT is now the cipher for how we will soon do everything, or rather, have everything done for us. It’s like the Goblin Teasmade of the digital age.

Soon, and we’re talking years, machines will undertake all of the drudgery of our daily lives at work and in the home as well as transcending the art of headline writing, language translation and forecasting natural disasters or avoiding terror attacks. Recently, Google’s machine learner Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge.

So how then, with this super-abundance of intelligence did Microsoft’s Tay get all ‘her’ social sums so wrong and what does this say about the future of a small thing called humanity?

As Steve Hawking says in Wired magazine, “A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”

Thought leaders and pioneers of machine learning are of the same voice as Dr Hawking. The prestigious MIT Media Lab appointed a Dalai Lama-grade monk to its Ethics panel, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, philosopher, philanthropist, polymath and all-round virtuous big brain. The artificial intelligence and governance initiative aims to examine ‘meaningfulness and moral purpose’ between individuals, organisations and societies.

The High-Church ‘don’t be evil’ Google aspiration will hopefully pass on its mantra to the internet of things. When neuroboffin Demis Hassabis’s company Deepmind was acquired by Google for $400 million, he reportedly asked the search giant to create an ethics board to oversee its AI research as a condition of its acquisition, which it did, autonomously.

Microsoft’s Tay marauded around the internet for 24 hours before being shut down. Steven Roundtree was allowed a few fist pumps before he was summarily sent to Coventry for throwing the 1977 Inter-Primary School Cup final for CCP. I wonder if he ever learned from that experience. I bet Tay has.


Steven Roundtree is not his real name.