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Artificial intelligence

Why does AI hallucinate?

The tendency to make things up is holding chatbots back. But that’s just what they do.

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Yoshi Sodeoka

MIT Technology Review Explains: Let our writers untangle the complex, messy world of technology to help you understand what's coming next. You can read more from the series here.

The World Health Organization’s new chatbot launched on April 2 with the best of intentions. 

A fresh-faced virtual avatar backed by GPT-3.5, SARAH (Smart AI Resource Assistant for Health) dispenses health tips in eight different languages, 24/7, about how to eat well, quit smoking, de-stress, and more, for millions around the world.

But like all chatbots, SARAH can flub its answers. It was quickly found to give out incorrect information. In one case, it came up with a list of fake names and addresses for nonexistent clinics in San Francisco. The World Health Organization warns on its website that SARAH may not always be accurate.

Here we go again. Chatbot fails are now a familiar meme. Meta’s short-lived scientific chatbot Galactica made up academic papers and generated wiki articles about the history of bears in space. In February, Air Canada was ordered to honor a refund policy invented by its customer service chatbot. Last year, a lawyer was fined for submitting court documents filled with fake judicial opinions and legal citations made up by ChatGPT. 

The problem is, large language models are so good at what they do that what they make up looks right most of the time. And that makes trusting them hard.

This tendency to make things up—known as hallucination—is one of the biggest obstacles holding chatbots back from more widespread adoption. Why do they do it? And why can’t we fix it?

Magic 8 Ball

To understand why large language models hallucinate, we need to look at how they work. The first thing to note is that making stuff up is exactly what these models are designed to do. When you ask a chatbot a question, it draws its response from the large language model that underpins it. But it’s not like looking up information in a database or using a search engine on the web. 

Peel open a large language model and you won’t see ready-made information waiting to be retrieved. Instead, you’ll find billions and billions of numbers. It uses these numbers to calculate its responses from scratch, producing new sequences of words on the fly. A lot of the text that a large language model generates looks as if it could have been copy-pasted from a database or a real web page. But as in most works of fiction, the resemblances are coincidental. A large language model is more like an infinite Magic 8 Ball than an encyclopedia. 

Large language models generate text by predicting the next word in a sequence. If a model sees “the cat sat,” it may guess “on.” That new sequence is fed back into the model, which may now guess “the.” Go around again and it may guess “mat”—and so on. That one trick is enough to generate almost any kind of text you can think of, from Amazon listings to haiku to fan fiction to computer code to magazine articles and so much more. As Andrej Karpathy, a computer scientist and cofounder of OpenAI, likes to put it: large language models learn to dream internet documents. 

Think of the billions of numbers inside a large language model as a vast spreadsheet that captures the statistical likelihood that certain words will appear alongside certain other words. The values in the spreadsheet get set when the model is trained, a process that adjusts those values over and over again until the model’s guesses mirror the linguistic patterns found across terabytes of text taken from the internet. 

To guess a word, the model simply runs its numbers. It calculates a score for each word in its vocabulary that reflects how likely that word is to come next in the sequence in play. The word with the best score wins. In short, large language models are statistical slot machines. Crank the handle and out pops a word. 

It’s all hallucination

The takeaway here? It’s all hallucination, but we only call it that when we notice it’s wrong. The problem is, large language models are so good at what they do that what they make up looks right most of the time. And that makes trusting them hard. 

Can we control what large language models generate so they produce text that’s guaranteed to be accurate? These models are far too complicated for their numbers to be tinkered with by hand. But some researchers believe that training them on even more text will continue to reduce their error rate. This is a trend we’ve seen as large language models have gotten bigger and better. 

Another approach involves asking models to check their work as they go, breaking responses down step by step. Known as chain-of-thought prompting, this has been shown to increase the accuracy of a chatbot’s output. It’s not possible yet, but future large language models may be able to fact-check the text they are producing and even rewind when they start to go off the rails.

But none of these techniques will stop hallucinations fully. As long as large language models are probabilistic, there is an element of chance in what they produce. Roll 100 dice and you’ll get a pattern. Roll them again and you’ll get another. Even if the dice are, like large language models, weighted to produce some patterns far more often than others, the results still won’t be identical every time. Even one error in 1,000—or 100,000—adds up to a lot of errors when you consider how many times a day this technology gets used. 

The more accurate these models become, the more we will let our guard down. Studies show that the better chatbots get, the more likely people are to miss an error when it happens.  

Perhaps the best fix for hallucination is to manage our expectations about what these tools are for. When the lawyer who used ChatGPT to generate fake documents was asked to explain himself, he sounded as surprised as anyone by what had happened. “I heard about this new site, which I falsely assumed was, like, a super search engine,” he told a judge. “I did not comprehend that ChatGPT could fabricate cases.” 

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