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Tay
Tay turned into a big controversy for Microsoft in 2016. (Microsoft / Kik Image)

Tay, the Microsoft chatbot that pranksters trained to spew racist comments, has joined the likes of the Apple Watch and the fire-prone Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone on MIT Technology Review’s list of 2016’s biggest technology failures.

Tay had its day back in March, when it was touted as a millennial-minded AI agent that could learn more about the world through its conversations with users. It learned about human nature all too well: Mischief-makers fed its artificial mind with cuss words, racism, Nazi sentiments and conspiracy theories. Within 24 hours, Microsoft had to pull Tay offline.

Other technological missteps were rated as fails because they didn’t take off as expected, as was the case for Apple’s smartwatch; or because they took off in flames, like the batteries in the Samsung phone.

Facebook’s “fake news” controversy and Volkswagen’s “defeat device,” which was designed to cheat on U.S. emissions tests, made the list as well. But of all the fails on MIT’s list, my vote goes to the Glowing Plant project, which raised almost half a million dollars on Kickstarter to develop bioengineered plants that glow in the dark.

The plant production hasn’t yet paid off, but it’s morphed into a different project under a new name: Taxa Biotechnologies). Now the effort’s organizers are promising to create bioengineered strains of moss that give off fragrant scents … and eventually glow. The Glowing Plant saga points to the limits of biohacking and biotech, as well as the limits of crowdfunding.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has learned its lessons from Tay and is back with a new corps of AI chatbots – including Zo, a synthetic millennial that’s programmed to avoid potentially testy topics. Will chatbots show up on 2017’s list of the best, or the worst? Cortana, what do you think?

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