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Sorry, Wired: That “Crafty Robot” Doesn’t Write in Languages It’s Never Seen

The artificial intelligence industry is overwhelmed with title inflation and feat hype

For a short time, I was the CEO of a company. I was also, as a matter of fact, the COO, the CTO, and CMO. I was awash in titles because I was also the sole employee. But, hey, CEO sure looked good on the business card!

The technology business world has coined a term for the countless start-up CEOs’ positions: Title inflation: You hold the title, but it inflates who you are and what you do.

But AI in general is overwhelmed with title inflation. The titles of articles and announcements imply accomplishments and achievements that are often missing from the text, if we take time to read the details. Even, the frequently reliable Wired Magazine is not immune.

One of their recent articles announced a robot with a truly remarkable skill: This Crafty Robot Can Write in Languages it’s Never Seen Before. If true, it would, indeed, be amazing. It would be amazing for anyone. The first paragraph sets the tone:

Among the many things we humans like to lord over the rest of the animal kingdom is our complex language. Sure, other creatures talk to one another, but we’ve got all these wildly complicated written languages with syntax and fun words like defenestrate. This we can also lord over robots, who, in addition to lacking emotion and the ability to not fall on their faces, can’t write novels.”

Matt Simon, “This Crafty Robot Can Write in Languages It’s Never Seen Before” at Wired

If, however, you keep reading, the spectacular fades into the mundane:

After training to hand-write Japanese characters, the robot then turned around and started to copy words in a slew of other languages it’d never written before, including Hindi, Greek, and English, just by looking at examples of that handwriting.

Matt Simon, “This Crafty Robot Can Write in Languages it’s Never Seen Before” at Wired

So, basically, the researchers created an AI that could, given training in Japanese glyphs, copy the glyphs used in other languages.

Uh… wow.

The robot is an impressive achievement on the part of Atsunobu Kozani and Stefanie Tellex of Brown University ( details, paper). Aside from getting it to move correctly, the researchers had to train its systems to detect lines, how those lines begin and end, how to move from one character to the next, and so on. But, the robot is not writing in languages it’s never seen; it’s merely copying characters it’s never seen. Big difference.

AI suffers from too many exaggerated headlines which, like inflated titles, promote unreasonable hopes (and fears) by making misleading implied promises. That’s too bad. Headline hype obscures the researchers’ remarkable accomplishments while luring the unsuspecting to believe AI is more than it is and does more than it does.

The next time you read a headline about an absolutely stunning advance in AI’s march to overtake humans, be cautious. Read the fine print. As with investments and business deals, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Also by Brendan Dixon: Autopilot is not just another word for “asleep at the wheel” As a recent fatal accident in Florida shows, even sober, attentive drivers often put too much trust into Tesla’s Autopilot system, with disastrous results


News from the real world of self-driving taxis: Not yet WayMo includes a human in all their “robotaxis,” just in case, because the vehicles (at last report) were still confounded by common conditions

Brendan Dixon

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Brendan Dixon is a Software Architect with experience designing, creating, and managing projects of all sizes. His first foray into Artificial Intelligence was in the 1980s when he built an Expert System to assist in the diagnosis of software problems at IBM. Since then, he’s worked both as a Principal Engineer and Development Manager for industry leaders, such as Microsoft and Amazon, and numerous start-ups. While he spent most of that time other types of software, he’s remained engaged and interested in Artificial Intelligence.

Sorry, Wired: That “Crafty Robot” Doesn’t Write in Languages It’s Never Seen