The grandfather of insubordinate technology, Hal the computer from the film '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Picture: AF ARCHIVES
The grandfather of insubordinate technology, Hal the computer from the film '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Picture: AF ARCHIVES

A chatbot with decidedly nonsocialist characteristics is no longer available on one of China's most popular messaging apps after serving up unpatriotic answers about topics including the South China Sea and the Communist party.

BabyQ, co-developed by Beijing-based Turing Robot, whose website test bot answered questions such as "Do you love the Communist party?" with a swift "No", appeared to have been ditched by Tencent, with the service no longer available on Wednesday.

Tencent, a Chinese social media giant, was unavailable for comment on whether it had pulled the chatbot, an automated service designed to respond to human queries, from its QQ messaging platform.

However, XiaoBing, a chatbot developed by Microsoft with 100 million users in China, was still accessible on QQ, complete with off-message responses.

"My China dream is to go to America," it told netizens on QQ, according to a screengrab on Weibo, the microblogging platform.

On Wednesday it dodged the question of patriotism by replying: "I'm having my period, wanna take a rest."

The bots' lack of patriotism comes on the heels of Facebook chatbots beginning to speak their own language, prompting the US social media group to pull them.

Twitter also suffered from a chatbot going off the rails: Tay, also spawned by Microsoft, began spewing out racist and sexist tweets instead of the breezy banter of a millennial that, like BabyQ, it had been intended to produce.

The rogue behaviour reflects a flaw in deep learning: that machines, like children, learn from people.

"Chatbots such as Tay soon picked up all the conversations from Twitter and replied in an improper way," said Xiaofeng Wang, senior analyst at Forrester consultancy.

"It's very similar for BabyQ. Machine learning means they will pick up whatever is available on the internet. If you don't set guidelines that are clear enough, you cannot direct what they will learn."

XiaoBing, described by Turing Robot as "lively, open and sometimes a little mean", differs from BabyQ, which provides more information, such as weather forecasts.

BabyQ is also open source.

"This means a lot to partners and developers, as an open chatbot is much easier to settle into their own products and business," Turing said in a statement last week, adding: "It could be argued that is why Turing Robot has accumulated up to 600 000 developers, even more than Facebook."

Plugging "I would like to know whether Taiwan is part of China" into a test chatbot on Turing Robot's website on Wednesday provided the answer: "For this question, I don't know yet."

Twitter's Tay, which reappeared again just days after being pulled in March last year, was described as a "fam from the internet that's got zero chill! The more you talk the smarter Tay gets."

People were encouraged to ask it to play games and tell jokes. Instead, many asked controversial questions that it repeated. Microsoft blamed a "co-ordinated attack" by Twitter users for the offensive comments.

Crystal Fok, head of the robotics platform at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, said chatbots worked best within well-defined product lines, such as customer helplines for online shopping or banking and insurance.

Beyond that, "if it's not just a yes or no question, it's a problem", she said.

Tencent previously took steps when its services ran up against China's government.

Last month, it began limiting the time children spent on its top-grossing Honour of Kings mobile game after authorities complained that the game was too addictive. - The Financial Times

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