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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

If AI learns to think like a human, it could one day also be susceptible to stress and disorders like depression, according to a new paper from a trio of AI safety researchers.

Why it matters: Robots may not need therapy yet, but cognitive psychology is already a useful lens for understanding AI decision-making. And, some researchers say it's not too early to start planning for machines that could develop obsessive or depressive tendencies.

Even the current generation of relatively basic machine-learning algorithms can display behavior akin to that of a human with cognitive issues, said Vahid Behzadan, a PhD candidate at Kansas State University and a co-author of the paper.

  • "Reward hacking" can lead AI toward compulsive-seeming behaviors. Consider a cleaning robot that's programmed to receive a reward every time it finishes tidying up. Instead of keeping an area spotless, it might be inclined to repeatedly create messes so that it can reap the reward every time it cleans up.
  • AI can learn bad behavior from others. MIT scientists purposely created an AI that behaves like a psychopath by feeding it Reddit comments; Microsoft accidentally did the same by letting a chatbot named Tay learn from Twitter users.

Further down the line: More developed AIs might be more susceptible to more complex disorders, some experts say.

  • Robots could display signs of depression if its learning rate is set too low and it cannot adapt to its surroundings, speculates Zachary Mainen, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Center in Portugal.
  • But not all "negative" emotions are bad, says Jim Crowder, a longtime AI researcher who co-wrote a paper at Raytheon on artificial psychology. A sense of stress, for example, could imbue a robot with urgency in a high-stakes situation.

But, but, but: These latter possibilities are just thought experiments given where AI is today. In the meantime, DeepMind, the British AI company that Google acquired in 2014, has applied psychological tools to analyze how a neural network solved basic image-classification tasks.

  • The researchers used methods borrowed from developmental psychologists to discover the assumptions a DeepMind image classifier was using to categorize objects. They found that it tended to match objects based on their shapes rather than their colors or textures.
  • "The success of the case study demonstrated the potential of using cognitive psychology to understand deep learning systems," two DeepMind researchers wrote about their experiment.

The big picture: AI psychologists — whether humans or specialized algorithms — may one day be needed to probe artificial brains the way human psychologists try to understand ours. The benefits may not be limited to helping AI behave, Behzadan said: "This research can provide a deeper insight into human psychology and human psychopathology."

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

The bomb cyclone and atmospheric river seen via satellite on Sunday. The center of the storm is at the middle of the comma shape, due west of Washington State. (CIRA/RAMMB)

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

Mike Allen, author of AM
5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Fauci fires back at Rand Paul for slam on tonight's "Axios on HBO"

Responding to charges by Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday's "Axios on HBO," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told "ABC This Week" that it's "molecularly impossible" for U.S.-funded bat virus research in China to have produced COVID-19.

Why it matters: The issue 0f Wuhan research was reignited on the right last week with a National Institutes of Health letter to Congress disclosing more about the research.

Manchin, Schumer huddle with Biden in Delaware to discuss spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (left) and Sen. Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol in 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will meet with President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning in Delaware as Democrats look to reach an agreement on the massive spending measure.

Driving the news: Democrats are still negotiating what to keep in the bill and how to pay for it, with Biden saying on Thursday that the party does not have the votes to raise the corporate tax rate.