The AI Used to Sell You More Stuff Can Now Read Better Than a Human

A still from a video promoting Alibaba’s AI. (Screenshot: Alibaba)
A still from a video promoting Alibaba’s AI. (Screenshot: Alibaba)

For the first time ever, two AI systems built to process and respond to human speech (created, respectively, by Microsoft and Chinese commerce giant Alibaba) outscored humans in a reading comprehension test designed by Stanford researchers.

The Stanford Question Answering Dataset, SQuAD, is composed of a staggering 100,000 questions following brief reading passages. Created in 2016, SQuAD is used as a benchmark to measure AI’s progress in natural language processing. After reading excerpts from Wikipedia, the systems answer questions like “What is the Latin name for Black Death?” and “How many actors have played Doctor Who?” Both Microsoft and Alibaba’s AI outscored humanity in the latest round of testing. Alibaba’s AI score was 82.44, and Microsoft’s was 82.650, with humans trailing behind them both at 82.304.

Alibaba’s system may have finished second, but it’s more than qualified to handle its day job: working in sales. The company’s AI team reportedly works closely with the developers of Ali Xiaomi, a chat bot that answers customer questions about products. At peak times, Alibaba says 95 percent of its online customer questions can be handled by Ali Xiaomi. For now, the goal is creating a new class of responsive AI to help with a variety of online tasks. Similarly, Microsoft has used AI to boost the capabilities of its office suite.


“The technology underneath can be gradually applied to numerous applications,” said Alibaba’s chief scientist Luo Si in a statement, “such as customer service, museum tutorials and online responses to medical inquiries from patients, decreasing the need for human input in an unprecedented way.”

There’s something grimly familiar about an exceedingly well-trained AI trapped in a 9 to 5 answering sales questions, but while the scores are certainly impressive, AI is far from comprehending things as we understand the concept. As MIT Technology Review’s Jamie Condliffe puts its, AI can only recognize answers in terms of patterns or structures. So while it can correctly answer “Who was elected President in November 1960?” it doesn’t actually know who “John F. Kennedy” is.


Of course I have pages. I had pages five years ago. How anyone can believe I don’t defies belief.

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Automation is coming for your job. Don’t be fooled that you are a special snowflake, imbued with skills and abilities, schooling, that make you invaluable, because you are not. You are a collection of experiences and responses to stimuli that can and will be automated and you will no longer be worth the meat you are made of.