With Artificial Intelligence starting to emerge as one of the world-changing technologies of the next decade, this news piece about a man who got into an argument with a parrot reminded me of an episode in 1989 when an undergraduate computer programmer at the University of Dublin wrote a simple chatbot program which he called MGonz.
It couldn't handle anything beyond a very basic text conversation, and its main feature was that, if it didn't know how to respond to a question, it would throw in an insult such as "type something interesting or shut up", "get lost" or numerous profanities.
So all very simple, and all very silly, until 2 May 1989 when a still unknown person from Drake University, Iowa, managed to get into an argument with MGonz which lasted 1 ½ hours, getting increasingly defensive and furious as he traded insults with the chatbot.
And somehow that reminds me of the commercial disputes that I work on, with parties frequently focusing their attention not on the underlying difference between them, but instead getting themselves wrapped up in additional grievances based upon the way that their counter-part is behaving during the negotiations. So the way that they behave after the dispute has arisen all too often makes the situation worse, not better. Or as Ian Leslie put it in the RSA Journal earlier this year: "...each remark is only about the last remark. The conversation drifts, unanchored from context. Stateless arguments can run on indefinitely and fruitlessly, since there is nothing to conclude, and as they do so they become nastier. Like water, argument becomes diffuse as it heats up. Unlike steam, the resulting gas is toxic. You might forget what your argument was about, but you will probably remember how it made you feel about them".
Which is why the need for mediation goes far beyond trying to side-step any short-comings in our court systems. All too often it's about keeping a cool head and helping people communicate about what's actually important to them.
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