Prof. Ben Zhao talks Twitter bots and AI on Chicago Tonight

March 01, 2018

Prof. Ben Zhao interviewed by Chicago Tonight on fake Twitter accounts, artificial intelligence

University of Chicago Neubauer Professor of Computer Science Ben Zhao made two recent appearances on Chicago Tonight, a nightly news show on Chicago's PBS station, WTTW. The segments, which aired on January 31st and February 28th, covered fake Twitter accounts and other uses of social media bots and the promise and risks of artificial intelligence. 

In his first appearance, Zhao told host Phil Ponce that many Twitter bots serve a beneficial purpose, such as the account @earthquakesSF, which automatically tweets earthquake data from the United States Geological Survey.

“A company like Twitter has, in some sense, kept alive a good amount of bots and software, so that’s the legitimate side of the bot system,” Zhao said. “But as we’ve seen with Twitter or Facebook, there’s been a lot of undue influence on these social platforms for the purposes of amplifying particular political campaigns and agendas.”

Zhao pointed out that the problem often conflicts with the incentives of social media companies to grow user bases and distribute mass amounts of information quickly and easily.

“Because of how good these tools are at their own business, they become ideal weapons in the information wars,” Zhao said."

For his second appearance, Zhao weighed in on new AI technologies used to simulate speech and video, as well as the potential military use of automonous weapons. 

"A limitation of the current technology is it is sort of like a black box -- you can't really understand why it comes out with what it does, you just know that most of the time it's correct," Zhao said. "But if it does make a mistake, then there's not a lot of reasons to go back on, post-mortem, to understand why it did what it did."