Foul-mouthed chat app has Thai Cultural Heralds up in arms

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 6, 2012

We thought we would hear less of Thailand’s National Knee-Jerk Outrage Machine (“กลไกสร้างปฏิกิริยาอย่างไร้ความยั้งคิดแห่งประเทศไทย”, trademark pending), also known as the Thai Cultural Heralds or ThaiMiniCult, now that that there's someone new in charge at the Ministry of Culture. But apparently it was just a matter of time, and now they're back to bemoan the perceived fall of whatever they call "Thai-ness":

The Culture Ministry is concerned about young people using the Simsimi artificial intelligence conversation program as it uses impolite and rude words.

Culture Surveillance Bureau chief Ladda Thangsupachai said on Thursday the Simsimi application is popular among smartphone users at this time and many swear words have been used in the chatting bot.

"Culture alarmed about Simsimi app", Bangkok Post, February 2, 2012

The Simsimi app in question is a multilingual chat bot by a South Korean company that gradually learns new words and phrases from its users. Simply put, the more people use it, the better it 'speaks' back to you. However, it appears that many Thai users have not taken the 'learning' part very seriously and instead taught it some naughty Thai words instead. "So what?" you may think, considering this app has been around since 2002. Why the outrage now? Well, let's see how outraged they are first:

The Simsimi artificial intelligence conversation program is causing social degeneration and creating gaps between members of the family, Culture Minister Sukumol Khunploem said Friday. (...)

"I personally think that the program reflects social problems that are very worrying. Instead of talking to or interacting with friends, people today talk to themselves and normal people don't do that.

"Many young people are using this type of program and this shows the decline in the closeness of the family ties and human interaction," said Mrs Sukumol.

"Culture blasts Simsimi app as 'not normal'", Bangkok Post, February 3, 2012

Users of the SimSimi "chat robot" application who post texts deemed libellous to other persons online face prosecution, even if the offensive remarks are generated by the program, said Thailand's Information and Communications Technology Minister Gp Captain Anudith Nakornthap.

"We will monitor the online world and take action against offenders," he said. He called on people to alert the ICT Ministry if they find libellous messages online.

"Thai gov't issues libel warning for users of chat robot", The Nation via Asian News Network, February 4, 2012

WOW! Only the Nitirat group gets so much hate at the moment! Kidding aside, it speaks volume how MICT minister Anudith has reacted to this whole selective outrage (over a chat AI, mind you!) if people post the results when they enter the name of somebody (e.g. a politician) - by simply dropping the legal hammer on them! The developers of the app have reportedly complied with the Thai authorities and agreed to remove the offensive words and phrases from it.

And about the culture minister blaming the social deterioration on a simple mobile app - aren't the problems far more deeper rooted like, um, education and a deeply anachronistic, monolithic perception of 'Thai-ness'? Nah, that's probably too complicated for an explanation and also too complicated to fix (let alone too expensive) - instead have an easy scapegoat to show that the ministry is actually doing something!

Also, how likely is it that such an app can be such detrimental to Thai society:

Amornwit Nakhonthap, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Education, said Simsimi was only a fad. Though the language used might be rude sometimes, there were many young people who knew the appropriate usage for such language, he said.

"Simsimi robot app too rude for some parents", The Nation, February 3, 2012

Now that's some level-headed commentary right there, absolutely rational and not over-hyping... wait, there's more...?

He urged the authorities to supervise the Internet by blocking and screening inappropriate content.

"Simsimi robot app too rude for some parents", The Nation, February 3, 2012

D'oh! I praised too soon...!

P.S.: I love how those headlines attribute the concerns to the WHOLE Thai culture!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.