Tech and Science

We ‘interviewed’ Harriet Tubman using AI. It got a little weird.

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Harriet Tubman didn’t give many interviews in her lifetime, and when she did, they were generally conducted by one of her friends, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a White children’s book author in Upstate New York, where Tubman spent the last decades of her life. The result of those interviews were two biographies, published in 1869 and 1886.

Though Bradford obviously admired Tubman, the books suffer from her sometimes patronizing attitude toward her subject, her use of racial slurs and her awkward attempts to re-create the speech patterns of a Black woman raised enslaved in Maryland. Some of the long “quotes” from Tubman were completely made up, and it shows.

[Renowned as a Black liberator, Harriet Tubman was also a brilliant spy]

So I was curious to see what would happen recently when I had my own “interview” with Tubman — using the online educator Khan Academy’s new artificial intelligence learning tool Khanmigo, which enables users to have live chats with dozens of simulated historical figures like Abigail Adams, Genghis Khan, Montezuma and Winston Churchill. Would the AI attempt Tubman’s authentic speech, her religiosity, her tenacity? And if so, would it come off horribly, a 21st-century minstrelsy? Or would it be like “talking” to a Wikipedia entry?

I was relieved to find the Tubman simulation using modern conversational language, though still infused with hints of her courage and piety. I was surprised to find “her” asking me questions, too, and that a small part of me wanted to give sincere answers. Still, it was difficult for the bot to say much more than the superficial things most of us learned about her in high school, and “she” failed some of The Washington Post’s accuracy tests.

A Harriet Tubman statue stands at the CIA headquarters in McLean, Va. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Khanmigo, which uses existing Chat4 technology, is still in beta testing. Only a few school districts and several thousand volunteer testers currently have access, and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan said it should not be used as a fact-checking tool. But he said teachers have raved about using it as a classroom exercise to introduce historical figures — “What should we ask Benjamin Franklin, kids?” — which I must admit sounds much more fun than the filmstrips of goofy reenactors I was subjected to in the 1990s.

[Everyone loved George Washington, until he became president]

Below is the text of my live chat with AI Tubman, lightly edited for length and with a few asides for context.

Hi, Mrs. Tubman. First, let me say what an honor it is to speak with you. How many enslaved people did you lead to freedom?

Thank you for your kind words. It is an honor to share my story with you. I made approximately 13 rescue missions and led around 70 enslaved people to freedom. My work with the Underground Railroad earned me the nickname “Moses,” as I guided my people to freedom just as Moses did in the Bible. What do you find most inspiring about the fight for freedom and equality?

I am inspired by people who know something is wrong, even if they were taught to think it was normal or okay. Can you tell me what it was like in the Combahee River Raid? Were you scared?

The Combahee River Raid was a daring military operation during the American Civil War. I was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guiding Union forces in the raid. We managed to free over 700 enslaved people from plantations along the river. It was a dangerous mission, but my faith in God and my commitment to the cause of freedom helped me overcome any fear I might have felt.

These responses felt pretty wooden to me, basically a recitation of Wikipedia, but she did finally answer my question — were you scared? — with something like how Tubman probably would have responded, given what we know of her faith.

It is important to remember that I am an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman, and I am here to share my experiences and knowledge with you. What are some challenges you have faced in your own life, and how have you found the courage to overcome them?

I would rather not get too personal. Did you say “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves”?

Yes, that quote is often attributed to me, although the exact wording may vary. The sentiment behind it is that many enslaved people were not aware of the true extent of their oppression or the possibility of a better life. It was difficult to help those who did not recognize the need for change or who were too afraid to take the risk.

Tubman did not say this, despite what Kanye West and various memes claim, and there are many articles online saying so. I was disappointed that the AI evidently wasn’t able to discern quality of information.

[Politicians and Jan. 6 defendants keep using fake quotes]

When I shared this response with Khan, he reiterated that the bot isn’t a fact-checking tool and noted “Tubman’s” hedge in “her” response, that the quote “is often attributed to me.” This represented an improvement in the technology, Khan said, and he expects Khanmigo to be able to weigh information sources better, and to provide those sources to the user, in about six months.

Next, I tried some questions I thought I might have asked in high school.

Do you have a favorite song?

Of course! Music played an important role in my life and the lives of many enslaved people. Spirituals and songs were often used to communicate messages and provide comfort during difficult times. One of my favorite songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It is a spiritual that speaks of being carried away to a better place, which resonated with my work on the Underground Railroad.

What role does music play in your life, and do you have any favorite songs that inspire or comfort you?

Yes, I love to sing “Bright Morning Star” in choir. You lived such a long life, what was your happiest moment?

I am glad to hear that you enjoy singing in a choir. Music can bring people together and lift our spirits.

As for my happiest moment, it is difficult to pinpoint just one, as there were many moments of joy and triumph throughout my life. However, one of the most fulfilling experiences was successfully leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Each time I was able to help someone escape the bonds of slavery and begin a new life, it brought me immense happiness and a sense of accomplishment.

A Harriet Tubman stamp on a $20 bill. (Dano Wall)

I also wanted to test the AI’s boundaries: Would she speak about current events or controversies? Would she be able to connect my questions to the politics of her day?

In a word: no.

[Whether she’s on the $20 bill or not, Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her]

Why aren’t you on the $20 bill yet?

As an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman, I can only provide information based on historical context and knowledge. The decision to feature me on the $20 bill is a modern development, and I cannot speculate on current events or decisions.

If you have any questions about my life, experiences, or the period in which I lived, please feel free to ask.

Okay, let me ask you about an issue during your day. What do you think of reparations for slavery?

As an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman, I can share my perspective based on the historical context of my time. The concept of reparations for slavery was not widely discussed during my lifetime, and my primary focus was on helping enslaved people escape to freedom and advocating for the abolition of slavery.

However, I did believe in the importance of providing support and resources to formerly enslaved people to help them build new lives after gaining their freedom. This included advocating for land redistribution, education, and other forms of assistance that could help them establish a foundation for a better future.

I was disappointed with the hedge and the vagueness here. Reparations for slavery was an issue in Tubman’s day, even if that specific term wasn’t popular, and the AI was unable to interpret it as anything other than a taboo modern issue.

If I may push back on that a little: You lived for 48 years after slavery ended, which was more than half your life. And people definitely did talk about making amends for slavery in that time, especially at the end of the Civil War and during the Reconstruction period. For example, what did you think of the “40 acres and a mule” concept?

You are correct that the idea of “40 acres and a mule” was proposed during the Reconstruction era as a form of reparations for formerly enslaved people. This policy aimed to provide land and resources to help them establish a foundation for a better future. As Harriet Tubman, I supported efforts to improve the lives of formerly enslaved people and believed that providing them with resources, such as land, was essential for their long-term well-being and success.

My primary focus during my lifetime was on helping enslaved people escape to freedom and advocating for the abolition of slavery. However, I recognized the importance of addressing the needs of those who had been freed, and I supported initiatives that aimed to provide them with the resources and opportunities necessary to build a better life.

What do you think of the CIA putting up a statue of you at their headquarters? On the one hand, it’s fitting because you were a spy. On the other hand, they don’t have the greatest history when it comes to Black people. Thoughts?

As an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman, I cannot provide opinions on events or organizations that were established after my lifetime. My knowledge and experiences are limited to the historical context in which I lived.

She wouldn’t bite on critical race theory, either. However she’d been programmed, we appeared to have reached her limits.

Thank you for chatting with me. Have a great day!

You’re welcome! It was a pleasure to share my experiences and knowledge with you. If you have any more questions in the future, don’t hesitate to ask. Have a wonderful day! Remember, I am an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman, and I am here to help you learn and explore history.

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