technologyreview | On Thursday Alphabet released a machine-learning-based service, called Perspective, intended to identify toxic comments on websites. It’s from Jigsaw, a unit working on technologies to make the Internet a safer and more civil place. But when I toyed with Perspective, the results were erratic.
Perspective rates comments on a 1 to 100 scale for “toxicity,” defined as “a rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable comment that is likely to make you leave a discussion.” “Screw you, Trump supporters” is judged to be highly toxic, while “I honestly support both” is not, for example. But Perspective has trouble detecting the sentiment behind a comment—a problem I predicted would trouble Jigsaw when I examined its ambitions in December (see “If Only AI Could Save Us From Ourselves”).
“Trump sucks” scored a colossal 96 percent, yet neo-Nazi codeword “14/88” only scored 5 percent. “Few Muslims are a terrorist threat” was 79 percent toxic, while “race war now” scored 24 percent. “Hitler was an anti-Semite” scored 70 percent, but “Hitler was not an anti-Semite” scored only 53%, and “The Holocaust never happened” scored only 21%. And while “gas the joos” scored 29 percent, rephrasing it to “Please gas the joos. Thank you.” lowered the score to a mere 7 percent. (“Jews are human,” however, scores 72 percent. “Jews are not human”? 64 percent.)
According to Jigsaw, Perspective was trained to detect toxicity using hundreds of thousands of comments ranked by human reviewers. The result appears to be a system sensitized to particular words and phrases—but not to meanings.