A new artificial intelligence (AI) developed by the Alibaba Group has humans beaten on their own turf — the software has outperformed humans in a global reading comprehension test.

Robot reading.

Image credits herval / Flickr.

China’s biggest online commerce company is making big strides in the field of artificial intelligence. The Alibaba Group has developed a machine-learning model which scored higher than human users on the Stanford Question Answering Dataset (SQAD), a large-scale reading comprehension test with more than 100,000 questions. On January 11, the AI scored 82.44 on the test, compared to 82.304 scored by humans.

It’s the first time an AI has outperformed people in this task and has done so in style — SQAD is considered one of the world’s most authoritative machine-reading gauges.

Computer speak good now

Computers have shown they can gain the upper hand against human players in all sort of complex tasks now — most strikingly in games such as chess. However, all these tasks had one common feature: they were all structured in such a way that a sharp memory and awesome computing capability represented huge assets.

Up to now, however, languages were always seen as a human field par excellence. So this win might be a bit more nerve-wracking than those before. Looking towards the future, the win has huge implications in society, especially in the customer service sector.

These jobs were traditionally insulated from the effects of automation, relying on armies of call-center employees even while factories swapped workers for robots. As someone who has had the distinct misfortune of working in a call center, I can only wish the robots good luck, endless patience, and a blanket apology. However, the advent of this AI points to profound shifts to come in the sector, and many people, unlike me, actually like/need those jobs — for them, this does not bode well.

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It’s also a nerve-wracking to see AIs make such huge strides since, just two months ago, another Chinese AI passed the medical exam.

The Alibaba Group has worked closely with Ali Xiaomi, a mobile customer service chatbot which can be customised by retailers on Alibaba’s online market platform to suit their needs. Si Luo, a chief scientist at Alibaba’s research arm, said that the result means simple questions, such as “why does it rain?”, can be answered with a high degree of accuracy by machines.

“We believe the underlying technology can be gradually applied to numerous applications such as customer service, museum tutorials, and online response to inquiries from patients, freeing up human efforts in an unprecedented way,” Si said.

Ali Xiaomi was designed to identify the questions raised by customers and then look for the most relevant answers from pre-prepared documents. This made it a suitable platform for the new AI, as the processes that Ali Xiaomi uses are, in broad lines, the same ones that underpin the Stanford test.

Still, despite its superhuman result, Alibaba researchers say that the system is still somewhat limited. It works best with questions that have clear-cut answers; if the language is too vague, or the expression too ungrammatical, the bot likely won’t work properly. Similarly, if there’s no prepared answer, the bot will likely malfunction.

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