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Boffins develop method of driving computers insane

Test machine 'claimed responsibility for terrorist bombing'

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Boffins in America report that they have successfully developed a method for driving computers insane in much the same way as human brains afflicted by schizophrenia. A computer involved in their study became so unhinged that it apparently "claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing".

The research involved meddling with a neural network setup dubbed DISCERN, built by Professor Risto Miikkulainen, a top comp-sci boffin at the University of Texas. Grad student Uli Grasemann assisted in the process of driving the machine bonkers.

"With neural networks, you basically train them by showing them examples, over and over and over again," says Grasemann. "Every time you show it an example, you say, if this is the input, then this should be your output, and if this is the input, then that should be your output. You do it again and again thousands of times, and every time it adjusts a little bit more towards doing what you want. In the end, if you do it enough, the network has learned."

In the computer pottiness experiments, DISCERN was taught simple stories. But they tinkered with the automated mind in a fashion equivalent to the effects of an excessive release of dopamine in a human brain. In humans this tends to cause people to "hyperlearn" – to make incorrect connections between stored information.

This meddling duly sent DISCERN off its rocker in short order. According to a Texas Uni statement describing the research:

DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall. In one answer, for instance, DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.

In another instance, DISCERN began showing evidence of "derailment" — replying to requests for a specific memory with a jumble of dissociated sentences, abrupt digressions and constant leaps from the first- to the third-person and back again.

The crazed, burbling computer was evaluated by a top trick-cyclist, Ralph Hoffman of Yale uni, who confirmed that it did indeed have bats in its belfry in much the same way as a human suffering from schizophrenia.

"We have so much more control over neural networks than we could ever have over human subjects," says Grasemann. "The hope is that this kind of modeling will help clinical research."

The research is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. ®

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