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Oct 5, 2023

Context Contamination

Context contamination is a term I use to describe a nuanced problem affecting Ai-powered chatbots. These systems use the entire conversation (chat) as a context for generating replies. This feature, while beneficial for maintaining coherence and relevance, has a downside. When a user reuses the same long conversation for unrelated inquiries or tasks, the chatbot can produce errors. The system assumes that all parts of the conversation are interconnected and relevant to the current query, leading to responses that may be inaccurate or nonsensical. For example, if you ask it to write  a passage about a health issue, and then ask to write a passage about human emotion, it will continue to bring in the health issues into the piece about emotions.  

This phenomenon is not confined to the digital world; it has a parallel in human relationships. When we interact with others, our past experiences with them often color our perceptions. If you have had a conflict with someone, you are more likely to interpret their actions or words in the worst possible light. This is because the context of your relationship has been contaminated by negative experiences. You subconsciously look for more and more confirmations of a hypothesis that the person is bad. Similarly, when we have a favorable view of someone, perhaps because they are a friend, we may overlook their flaws or questionable behavior. This form of contamination can lead to poor judgment or decision-making, as we give undue credence to the words or actions of those we favor.

For chatbots, the solution is relatively straightforward: start a fresh conversation and its memory about the previous context will be wiped out. In human interactions, the solution is more nuanced but still achievable. One approach is to consciously reset your perception of the person, effectively ignoring or setting aside past experiences. This act of resetting is similar to the concept of forgiveness in many religious traditions. It is a ritual that allows both parties to move forward, unburdened by past grievances.

In both machine and human interactions, the challenge lies in effective context management. For chatbots, this might involve algorithmic adjustments to how they interpret and utilize context. For humans, it may require emotional intelligence and the willingness to engage in the difficult but rewarding process of forgiveness or other sort of reset. By addressing the issue of context contamination, we aim for more accurate and meaningful interactions, free from the distortions that contaminated context can bring.

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