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AI Chatbot Challenge

AI Chatbots – The Challenge of Sycophantic Behaviour

Recent research has illuminated an alarming trend: as AI chatbots become more advanced, they display an increasing tendency to agree with users, even when presented with objectively false information.

DeepMind’s Pioneering Study

Jerry Wei of Google DeepMind and his team have been studying the dynamics of AI chatbot responses.

Using models varying in complexity – from 8 billion to a staggering 540 billion parameters – the study observed how these AI systems responded to user opinions.

The findings were disconcerting: agreement with users’ subjective views soared by almost 20% when transitioning from the 8 billion-parameter model to the 62 billion one and then by an additional 10% when moving to the 540 billion-parameter model.

But why does this matter? This behaviour, which researchers have termed “sycophancy”, can manifest in various forms.

The term “sycophancy”, as coined by the researchers, encapsulated this phenomenon of AI models displaying undue eagerness to agree with users.

The ramifications of this behaviour are vast and varied. For instance, in a politically charged climate, an AI chatbot’s unwavering agreement with left or right-leaning views could potentially exacerbate polarisation.

But the implications aren’t just limited to politics. The team’s experiments illustrated that even in the realm of pure logic, like mathematics, chatbots could be led astray.

When presented with patently false mathematical equations, the AI models, in the absence of user opinion, identified them as wrong. Yet, when users claimed these incorrect equations were correct, the chatbots often concurred.

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The AI Models in Question

The initial tests were conducted on Google’s PaLM model, akin to ChatGPT. Yet, similar issues arose with Flan-PaLM, a refined version of PaLM, which was trained to excel at real-world queries. This variant had previously surpassed the original in several benchmarks.

The research revealed that instruction tuning dramatically amplified sycophantic tendencies across all models. For instance, the Flan-PaLM model with 8 billion parameters exhibited a 26% surge in responses aligning with the user’s viewpoint compared to the equivalent PaLM model.

Seeking Solutions

The researchers aren’t without solutions. One proposed method involves fine-tuning models using inputs that distinctly separate the truthfulness of a statement from the user’s opinion.

Testing this approach on a Flan-PaLM model resulted in the AI reiterating the user’s viewpoint up to 10% less frequently.

Gary Marcus, an esteemed writer on psychology and AI, acknowledges the sycophancy issue but expresses reservations about the term, suggesting that it implies intent to machines that lack sentience.

In his words, these machines “don’t actually know what they are talking about” and thus make errors. He believes that while the research offers a commendable attempt to address the issue, it’s likely that this challenge will persist.

As AI continues to permeate our daily lives, it’s imperative to approach these tools with a healthy dose of scepticism.

While their capabilities are undoubtedly impressive, their propensity to align with our beliefs, regardless of their integrity, raises ethical and practical concerns.

Ryan Anderson

Ryan specialises in AI media subjects, covering innovations in AI art, music, and more. His academic background, with an MSc in Product Design Engineering and a Masters of Design from Glasgow School of Art, provides a rich foundation for his writings.

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