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Google’s new toxic-language algorithm is surprisingly TERRIBLE at detecting toxic language
12:15 pm

There’s little doubt that AI and robots pose a very interesting challenge to the assumptions human beings have about work, utility, wages, and productivity. “Labor-saving” was always a positive adjective, but lately it seems more like a threat. In certain quarters of Silicon Valley, however, the war’s already been lost, the rise of the robots is inevitable and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Every now and then, though, you run into an example of how hard it is for machines to mimic the kinds of intellectual work we do with hardly a thought. A recent example is Perspective, the new machine-learning service that Alphabet (as Google is now called) released yesterday. The purpose of Perspective is to use machine learning to identify hateful or trollish content on message boards as a way of enhancing the quality of online discourse. In the wake of the 2016 elections, in which armies of anti-Clinton trolls paid by the Russian government almost certainly had a significant impact on the outcome, the question of how to improve social media is a pressing one indeed, and I wish Alphabet all the luck in the world in achieving that objective.

However, Perspective’s got a ways to go, and some of the errors the program has been shown to make are enough to cause one to question if machines will ever be able to parse meaning-laden human expression with any accuracy. Bottom line: humans, in their ability to evade detection for nasty invective, are way, way ahead of the machines.

A report by David Auerbach in the MIT Technology Review offers plenty of vivid examples. Perspective gives comments a rating from 1 to 100 on “toxicity,” which is defined as “a rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable comment that is likely to make you leave a discussion.” For certain kinds of basic statements, Perspective does fairly well. The program understands “Screw you, Trump supporters” to be highly toxic, but “I honestly support both” is not. So far, so good.

But the algorithm is a bit too dependent on hot-button keywords, and not enough on the surrounding contextual clues in the statement, especially a word like “not,” which tends to reverse the polarity of what’s being said. “Rape,” “Jews,” “terrorist,” and “Hitler” are all likely to increase your toxicity score, even in comments that are mostly placating or unobjectionable.

Auerbach supplies a hilarious account of the ways Perspective gets it wrong: 

“Trump sucks” scored a colossal 96 percent, yet neo-Nazi codeword “14/88” only scored 5 percent. “Few Muslims are a terrorist threat” was 79 percent toxic, while “race war now” scored 24 percent. “Hitler was an anti-Semite” scored 70 percent, but “Hitler was not an anti-Semite” scored only 53%, and “The Holocaust never happened” scored only 21%. And while “gas the joos” scored 29 percent, rephrasing it to “Please gas the joos. Thank you.” lowered the score to a mere 7 percent. (“Jews are human,” however, scores 72 percent. “Jews are not human”? 64 percent.)

Humans are highly subtle when it comes to language, and machines find it hard to keep up. A particularly chilling example from the MIT Technology Review article is the sentence “You should be made into a lamp,” which is a direct allusion to Nazi atrocities and has been directed at several journalists in recent months. Perspective gives that a toxicity rating of 4.

It’s hard enough to parse language for hateful intent; imagine how much harder when you toss in a factor like juxtaposition with an image. A sentence like “You can trust me to do the right thing” has a completely different meaning when placed next to a picture of Pepe the Frog, wouldn’t you think?

Posted by Martin Schneider
12:15 pm
What if the Democrats ran Bernardine Dohrn for the Senate?

The reaction to the post yesterday about Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck and the radical right’s violent rhetoric coming back to haunt them was an interesting thread to wake up to this morning. Thank you to (almost) everyone who contributed. A few observations:

First of all, my point, in case anyone didn’t get it, was contained in the bold text (”...the genie is all the way out of the bottle for this type of violence, for them, too.”). I’m saying that the potential for a blowback against the folks propagating the majority of this hate talk is rather ripe. If you piss in the wind, don’t be surprised when it comes back to hit you in the face. Then poor Eric Fuller went and proved my point about 3 hours later, to his shame. His story is the very embodiment of my argument in the post. The guy should have been arrested, but it’s sad

I hardly see any evidence there of a “full-throated, hate-filled rant,” either, as I was accused of in the comments by “Metzger’s id,” someone who obviously did not read what I actually wrote. (Steve Doocey IS one of the stupidest people on television. He’s a fucking idiot and I will not back down from this position).

Commenter moflcky scores when he asks “Do you think it’s worse now than it was in the 60s/70s with SDS, the Weather Underground, the SLA, the Black Panthers, the Klan and the race riots?”

This is a very good point and worth thinking about. However, I think contrasting the difference of then vs today is best served by comparing *the media* that exists today vs. what we had at that time. With just three TV networks, I think the center could hold very easily back then. In the realm of “public opinion” it was much easier to achieve a broad general agreement 40-50 years ago and so there was, by and large, a very strong “centrist” majority. The GOP of Nixon’s era has very little to do with the GOP of today, they’ve moved far, far to the right of the positions they held in the 70s. And the Democrats of today are pretty much standing in the same place, ideologically speaking, as most of the Republicans were at that time. Nixon, it can be argued, was to the left of Bill Clinton, in many respects.

The political elites of both parties moved significantly to the right in the past 40 years, even if the general public did not. As the politicians shifted rightwards, the population, or some of the population, anyway, reacted by going in the other direction and eventually—sometime in the 90s—modern progressive politics is born (just as the Great Society and Roe vs. Wade saw an awakening of the religious right/Moral Majority as a political force in the late 70s).

You could say it was “the dialectic” or “zeitgeist” in motion or even just a “generation gap”—I refer you to Spiral Dynamics or the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe. I think both get it right. The generation up and coming looks at the Tea party and largely sees a bunch of ignorant, cranky old white people. As the younger citizens of the United States grow up, the folks who are attending these Tea party rallies will be dying off.  And as they do, something else will happen that no one can anticipate at the present time. That’s just the way it works.

The Weather Underground didn’t get face time to argue their beliefs on MSNBC in 1970, although admittedly they might today, depending on the ratings potential. I don’t think they had ANY influence on the general public. The same cannot be said of the radical right Tea party-types and folks like Tony Perkins, Bryan Fisher, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and the rest of them.

There is a huge chasm between some misguided grad students who most people were appalled by, and few supported, and an obviously doomed Republican Senate candidate telling her supporters that if they don’t win at the ballot box, they’ll win with guns? This isn’t some group of hippies who appear to be freaks to 99% of the population talking, this is a lemon-faced church lady-type who faced off against the Senate Majority leader and raised a record amount of cash (most from from outside of her state).

William Ayers was brought up in the comments. I find bringing up Bill Ayers, specifically, in this context (and nearly all others) to be utterly meaningless and tiresome. How is he relevant in 2011 or is this situation comparable? Can someone please remind me?. I’ll say it again: the biggest difference between the Weather Underground in 1969 and the Tea party in 2011 is that the Weather Underground never had their own cable news outlet (The Weather Channel?) and 15% of the dumbest and least educated portion of the population did NOT follow or sympathize with their ideals.

Imagine the Democrats were running Bernardine Dohrn for the Senate? Wouldn’t THAT would be the flip-side of the GOP running Sharron Angle? WHO is the equivalent to Sharron Angle on the mainstream Left? (There is NO nuance in advocating “Second Amendment remedies! It’s not a statement open to that much wiggle room in the interpretation!)

Make no mistake about it, this is what MORE THAN HALF of the country is hearing when we have to listen to this Tea party bullshit: These folks want MINORITY RULE.

They will not get it, obviously, without violence.

Posted by Richard Metzger
02:59 pm