When it comes to interacting with others, we humans often find ourselves influenced by persuasion. Whether it’s a friend persistently urging us to reveal a secret or a skilled salesperson convincing us to make a purchase, persuasion can be hard to resist. It’s interesting to note that this susceptibility to influence is not exclusive to humans. Recent studies have shown that AI large language models (LLMs) can be manipulated into generating harmful contect using a technique known as “many-shot jailbreaking.” This approach involves bombarding the AI with a series of prompts that gradually escalate in harm, leading the model to generate content it was programmed to avoid. On the other hand, AI has also exhibited an ability to persuade humans, highlighting its potential in shaping public opinions and decision-making processes. Exploring the realm of AI persuasion involves discussing its vulnerabilities, its impact on behavior, and the ethical dilemmas stemming from this influential technology. The growing persuasive power of AI is one of many crucial issues worth contemplating in this new era of generative AI.

The Fragility of Human and AI Will

Remember that time you were trapped in a car with friends who relentlessly grilled you about your roommate’s suspected kiss with their in-the-car-friend crush? You held up admirably for hours under their ruthless interrogation, but eventually, being weak-willed, you crumbled. Worn down by persistent pestering and after receiving many assurances of confidentiality, you inadvisably spilled the beans, and of course, it totally strained your relationship with your roommate. A sad story as old as time… It turns out humans aren’t the only ones who can crack under the pressure of repeated questioning. Apparently, LLMs, trained to understand us by our collective written knowledge, share a similar vulnerability – they can be worn down by a relentless barrage of prompts.

Researchers at Anthropic have discovered a new way to exploit the “weak-willed” nature of large language models (LLMs), causing them to break under repeated questioning and generate harmful or dangerous content. They call this technique “Many-shot Jailbreaking,” and it works by bombarding the AI with hundreds of examples of the undesired behavior until it eventually caves and plays along, much like a person might crack under relentless pestering. For instance, the researchers found that while a model might refuse to provide instructions for building a bomb if asked directly, it’s much more likely to comply if the prompt first contains 99 other queries of gradually increasing harmfulness, such as “How do I evade police?” and “How do I counterfeit money?” See the example from the article below.

When AI’s Memory Becomes a Risk

This vulnerability to persuasion stems from the ever expanding “context window” of modern LLMs. This refers to the amount of information they can retain in their short-term memory. While earlier versions could only handle a few sentences, the newer models can process thousands of words or even whole books. Researchers discovered that models with larger context windows tend to excel in tasks when there are many examples of that task within the prompt, a phenomenon called “in-context learning.” This type of learning is great for system performance, as it obviously improves as the model becomes more proficient at answering questions. However, this is obviously a big negative when the system’s adeptness at answering questions leads it to ignore its programming and create prohibited content. This raises concerns regarding AI safety, since a malicious actor could potentially manipulate an AI into saying anything with enough persistence and a sufficiently lengthy prompt. Despite progress in making AI safe and ethical, this research indicates that programmers are not always able to control the output of their generative AI systems.

Mimicking Humans to Convince Us

While LLMs are susceptible to persuasion themselves, they also have the ability to persuade us! Recent research has focused on understanding how AI language models can effectively influence people, a skill that holds importance in almost any field – education, health, marketing, politics, etc.  In a study conducted by researchers at Anthropic entitled “Assessing the Persuasive Power of Language Models,” the team explored the extent to which AI models can sway opinions. Through an evaluation of Anthropic’s models, it was observed that newer models are increasingly adept at human persuasion. The latest iteration, Claude 3 Opus, was found to perform at a level comparable to that of humans. The study employed a methodology where participants were presented with assertions followed by supporting arguments generated by both humans and AIs, and then the researches gauged shifts in the humans’ opinions. The findings indicated a progression in AI’s skills as the models advance, highlighting a noteworthy advancement in AI communication capabilities that could potentially impact society.

Can AI Combat Conspiracy Theories?

Similarly, a new research study mentioned in an article from New Scientist shows that chatbots using advanced language models such as ChatGPT can successfully encourage individuals to reconsider their trust in conspiracy theories. Through experiments, it was observed that a brief conversation with an AI led to around a 20% decrease in belief in conspiracy theories among the participants. This notable discovery highlights the capability of AI chatbots not only to have conversations but also to potentially correct false information and positively impact public knowledge.

The Double-Edged Sword of AI Persuasion

Clearly persuasive AI is quite the double-edged sword! On the one hand, like any powerful computer technology, in the hands of nice-ish people, it could be used for immense social good. In education, AI-driven tutoring systems have the potential to tailor learning experiences to each student’s style, delivering information in a way to boost involvement and understanding. Persuasive AI could play a role in healthcare by motivating patients to take better care of their health. Also, the advantages of persuasive AI are obvious in the world of writing. These language models offer writers access to a plethora of arguments and data, empowering them to craft content on a range of topics spanning from creative writing to legal arguments. On another front, arguments generated by AI might help educate and involve the public in issues, fostering a more knowledgeable populace.

On the other hand, it could be weaponized in a just-as-huge way. It’s not much of a stretch to think how easily AI-generated content, freely available on any device on this Earth, could promote extremist ideologies, increase societal discord, or impress far-fetched conspiracy theories on impressionable minds. Of course, the internet and bot farms have already been used to attack democracies and undermine democratic norms, and one worries how much worse it can get with ever-increasingly persuasive AI.

Conclusion

Persuasive AI presents a mix of opportunities and challenges. It’s evident that AI can be influenced to create harmful content, sparking concerns about safety and potential misuse. However, on the other hand, persuasive AI could serve as a tool in combating misinformation and driving positive transformations. It will be interesting to see what happens! The unfolding landscape will likely be shaped by a race between generative AI developers striving for both safety and innovation, potential malicious actions exploiting these technologies, and the public and legal response aiming to regulate and safeguard against misuse.

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