As AI language skills grow, so do concerns of scientists
The tech industry’s latest artificial intelligence constructs can be pretty convincing if you ask them what it feels like to be a sentient computer, or maybe just a dinosaur or squirrel. But they’re not so good — and sometimes dangerously bad — at handling other seemingly straightforward tasks.
Take, for instance, GPT-3, a Microsoft-controlled system that can generate paragraphs of humanlike text based on what it’s learned from a vast database of digital books and online writings. It’s considered one of the most advanced of a new generation of AI algorithms that can converse, generate readable text on demand, and even produce novel images and video.
GPT-3 can write up most any text you ask for — a cover letter for a zookeeping job, say, or a Shakespearean-style sonnet set on Mars. But when Pomona College professor Gary Smith asked it a simple but nonsensical question about walking upstairs, GPT-3 muffed it.
“Yes, it is safe to walk upstairs on your hands if you wash them first,” the AI replied.
These powerful and power-chugging AI systems, technically known as “large language models” because they’ve been trained on a huge body of text and other media, are already getting baked into customer service chatbots, Google searches and “auto-complete” email features that finish your sentences for you.
But most of the tech companies that built them have been secretive about their inner workings, making it hard for outsiders to understand the flaws that can make them a source of misinformation, racism and other harms.
“They’re very good at writing text with the proficiency of human beings,” said Teven Le Scao, a research engineer at the AI startup Hugging Face. “Something they’re not very good at is being factual. It looks very coherent. It’s almost true. But it’s often wrong.”
That’s one reason a coalition of AI researchers co-led by Le Scao — with help from the French government — launched a new large language model last week that’s supposed to serve as an antidote to closed systems such as GPT-3. The group is BigScience and their model is BLOOM, or BigScience Large Open-science Open-access Multilingual language model.
Its main breakthrough is that it works across 46 languages, including Arabic, Spanish and French — unlike most that are focused on English or Chinese.
It’s not just Le Scao’s group aiming to open up the black box of AI language models. Big Tech company Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, is also calling for a more open approach as it tries to catch up to the systems built by Google and OpenAI, the company that runs GPT-3.
“We’ve seen announcement after announcement after announcement of people doing this kind of work, but with very little transparency, very little ability for people to really look under the hood and peek into how these models work,” said Joelle Pineau, managing director of Meta AI.