Over the course of a few weeks in April, Alex Petros and Morris Kolman created a website that tells you if you did the right or wrong thing. Called Are You the Asshole, it uses three AI text generation models trained on posts and comments from r/AmITheAsshole in order to answer the questions that you've been asking on Reddit for years.
In an age of declining religiosity and brooding culture wars, the r/AITA subreddit crowdsources ethics from anonymous Redditors. Some r/AITA posters are clearly wrong (the boyfriend that places sheets on all the furniture and avoids physical contact when his girlfriend is on her period) but others are more divisive: “AITA for switching to regular milk to prove my lactose intolerant roommate keeps stealing from me?” Now you don’t have to post onto the real subreddit; instead, Are You the Asshole will give you instant replies of similarly dubious quality. When Petros and Kolman released it on April 19, it was an instant hit.
The AI was trained on an “ungodly” amount of data from comments and posts on the r/AITA subreddit. Ultimately, the model is based on roughly 40,000 posts.
The site’s kooky answers and comically dubious morality caught the attention of the internet and landed features in Vice, Morning Brew, and The Verge. “In the first few days after it launched, we got hundreds of thousands of visitors to the website and we generated over 100,000 responses. We didn’t expect anything on that level,” Alex Petros told me over the phone.
His favorite answer from AYTA came when he wrote “I hate cats.” The automatically generated response said he was not the asshole because, simply, “they are rats with fur.” In general, the automatically-generated answers used familiar strains of human reasoning and some answers make sense. In the project’s public description, its creators warn that the answers are neither magic nor genius: “sometimes the AI can produce stunning results, but it is fundamentally attempting to mimic the ways that humans put together arguments.” Often, the answers are total bogus — a demonstration of the limitations of AI and the caveats of using a lopsided sample of humanity (Redditors) to judge right from wrong.
Money money money — The AI required for the site’s text generation wasn’t free, and the funds from the media company Digital Void soon ran dry. So the duo put up a message on the site that it was no longer in operation and continued with their lives. But after a few weeks, they decided to bring it back with a sustainable funding model.
Now, users can donate $2 via Paypal to unlock 100 uses for everyone. “Running AI models is not free, but we want it to be accessible to the whole internet indefinitely,” the site reads.
Petros and Kolman didn’t want to fund it with ads. “The philosophical idea behind website is that if you remove layers of ad tracking that bog down the internet, what is a site capable of?” Kolman told me. “There’s been a tremendous advancement in what is possible in a web browser in the past decade, but the average user doesn’t feel that because the vast majority of that tech goes into tracking you better. Connections are faster but web pages are still slow to load.” In addition, he doesn’t want ads to clutter the page and take away from the experience,” he explained.
What’s the point? — The site usually can’t adequately answer any real moral quandaries, and its creators certainly don’t want people to use it for real-life issues. “I don’t trust the AITA Reddit with moral issues and I don’t trust AYTA with anything,” Petros told me. Don’t let the site convince you to move across the world or quit your job or do anything rash: the answers are just a smoothly constructed mishmash of previous Reddit comments, not some all-knowing judge of character nor an oracle. According to Alex Petros, one of the points of the site was just to create “something snappy and delightful and fun.” So go have a few laughs — and pay your $2 dues!