Knowledge Illusions

by @edent | # # # | 2 comments | Read ~290 times.

Optical Illusions trick your brain into seeing something that isn’t there. Whether it is spirals which don’t exist, movements which don’t occur, or faces in curved lines – our optic centres are trivially easy to fool.

An optical illusion - it looks like the image is moving. It isn't.

Humans are not alone in this cognitive deficiency. Other animals are also conned into believing something which isn’t true.

This tomfoolery is not restricted to animals – computers can also be mesmerised.

But there is something more insidious than that to consider. If you understand where an AI derives its information, you can cause a “Knowledge Illusion” – make it think it knows something, even though it is false.

This isn’t quite the notion of influencing an AI while it is still young and seeing those false beliefs propagate forwards – but about subtly corrupting the source of data which an AI relies on for instant learning.

Here’s an example. Which actors have played Doctor Who? If you’re a fan of the series, you might be able to reel off all of them (bonus points for remembering Peter Cushing!) but if you’re not… How would you find out? What sources would you trust? How would you corroborate the information?

Let’s see what Amazon’s Alexa thinks the answer is.

Look, I love Tim Roth – he’s an incredible actor. Would he make a good Doctor Who? Maybe – but it’s a role that has eluded him. And yet Alexa is convinced he once played the part.

Screenshot of the Alexa app. She thinks Tim Roth played Doctor Who.

What is causing this knowledge illusion? What seemingly authoritative source is corrupting the data?

Googling “Tim Roth Doctor Who” brings up a few stories from the last couple of years which indicate that he might once have been in the running for the part. Wikipedia doesn’t list him in their page about the show. So where is this illusion coming from?

I think the answer is IMDb’s listing for the actor. Nestled halfway down the page is this:

The IMDB page for Tim Roth. He has a minor credit for playing the character of Doctor Who in an episode of the comedy show "Robot Chicken".

Tim once played the voice of Doctor Who in a comedy skit on Robot Chicken. That’s it. A single episode.

I assume that Alexa searches the IMDb API for the character name and picks out the top hits. For some reason, Tim Roth is there but William Hartnell isn’t.

And there we have it. A dodgy response from an API call to a lightly moderated service induces false memories in our artificial intelligence. There’s no corroboration and no sanity checking. Alexa’s intelligence is just an illusion.

2 thoughts on “Knowledge Illusions

  1. J.D. McFadden says:

    Also forgot Sylvester McCoy!

  2. and where’s Peter Cushing! 😉 …or even Peter McAllum apparantly

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