Social media giant Facebook has announced its engineers shut shown two AI bots when, after speaking to each other, they began inventing their own language.

Facebook is investing heavily in artificial intelligence in a bid to create a “personalised digital assistant.” One trial it embarked on was setting up two robots to chat with one another and barter over balls, hats and books – to first ascribe a value to each and then negotiate price. However, a crucial stumbling block was missed in that developers didn’t ‘reward’ the bots for sticking to English. As such, they began twisting the language to meet their needs. Making the announcement, researchers described it as a “divergence from human language as the agents developed their own language for negotiating.”

Speaking the same language?

Though this announcement may spark fears of an Isaac Asimov-style robot uprising, it’s not quite so worrying as that – at least, not yet.

For example, when bartering over the ball, one AI bot could say “I want the the the the the ball.” Whilst this makes little sense on the surface, it shouldn’t take too long to work out it wants five balls. As Facebook researcher Dhruv Batra explained: “This isn’t so different from the way communities of humans create shorthands.”

In fact, machines using this shorthand are nothing new. Google’s immensely popular Translate service has used variations on this theme since the very first development. If AI bots invent a language that makes sense to them, and helps them unpick the semantics of language, it circumvents some of the more nuanced parts of human speech that would be so difficult to teach AI.

Whatever the longer-term outcome of Facebook’s trial, it’s worth noting that everything it has undertaken so far was being done for research. These bots weren’t in the public-facing arena. Additionally, the researchers shut it down not amid fear of the language that was being created, but instead that the result was something they were not studying, and was therefore of no interest to their overall research objectives.

The robot uprising is a little way off yet.