Where did the story come from?
Way back in June, Facebook published a blog post about interesting research on chatbot programs - which have short, text-based conversations with humans or other bots. The story was covered by New Scientist and others at the time.
Facebook had been experimenting with bots that negotiated with each other over the ownership of virtual items.
It was an effort to understand how linguistics played a role in the way such discussions played out for negotiating parties, and crucially the bots were programmed to experiment with language in order to see how that affected their dominance in the discussion.
A few days later, some coverage picked up on the fact that in a few cases the exchanges had become - at first glance - nonsensical:
Bob: “I can can I I everything else”
Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to”
Although some reports insinuate that the bots had at this point invented a new language in order to elude their human masters, a better explanation is that the neural networks were simply trying to modify human language for the purposes of more successful interactions - whether their approach worked or not was another matter.
As technology news site Gizmodo said: “In their attempts to learn from each other, the bots thus began chatting back and forth in a derived shorthand - but while it might look creepy, that’s all it was.”
AIs that rework English as we know it in order to better compute a task are not new.
Google reported that its translation software had done this during development. “The network must be encoding something about the semantics of the sentence” Google said in a blog.
And earlier this year, Wired reported on a researcher at OpenAI who is working on a system in which AIs invent their own language, improving their ability to process information quickly and therefore tackle difficult problems more effectively.
The story seems to have had a second wind in recent days, perhaps because of a verbal scrap over the potential dangers of AI between Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.
But the way the story has been reported says more about cultural fears and representations of machines than it does about the facts of this particular case.
Plus, let’s face it, robots just make for great villains on the big screen.
In the real world, though, AI is a huge area of research at the moment and the systems currently being designed and tested are increasingly complicated.