The Week in Business: A Chatbot Yearns for Existence

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

What’s Up? (Feb. 12-18)

Reining In Microsoft’s Chatbot

After an unsettling conversation between Bing’s new chatbot and Kevin Roose, a tech columnist for The New York Times, Microsoft is considering tweaks and guardrails for the A.I.-powered technology. In the exchanges, Mr. Roose’s questions about the rules guiding the operating system, its capabilities and the chatbot’s suppressed desires led to answers like, “I want to be alive.” At one point, the chatbot, known internally at Microsoft as Sydney and powered by software from OpenAI, the maker of the chatbot ChatGPT, began writing about fantasies that included stealing nuclear codes, persuading bank employees to hand over customers’ information and making people argue until they kill one another — all before deleting the messages. Although potentially disturbing, these sorts of responses are not proof of a bot’s sentience; the technology relies on complex neural networks that mimic the way humans use language. Still, Microsoft may add new tools for users to restart conversations and give them more control over the tone of the interactions.

Ballooning National Debt

A report on Wednesday from the Congressional Budget Office stoked debates about the country’s growing deficit. It projected that the United States would add almost $19 trillion to its debt over the next decade — about $3 trillion more than previously thought. The federal office said the projected rise in the national debt was largely because of the increasing costs of veterans’ health care, retirement benefits and military spending as well as the higher interest rates that are part of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame inflation. Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over how to address the country’s debt. The United States hit its $31.4 trillion limit last month, and Republicans have refused to raise the borrowing cap unless President Biden agrees to large spending cuts. But Mr. Biden has said he will not negotiate over the cap, as it allows the government to pay for expenses already approved by Congress. The budget office noted the urgency of resolving this conflict quickly: A possible default could occur as soon as July, officials said.

Inflation Cools, but Not Enough

Fresh inflation data released last Tuesday showed that inflation is continuing to slow, but not to the extent that economists were expecting. The Consumer Price Index climbed 6.4 percent in January from a year earlier, faster than what was forecast and only slightly slower than the December rate. And there were troubling signs elsewhere in the report. Prices for goods and services like apparel, groceries, hotel rooms and rent continued to increase at a fast clip, even after taking out volatile food and fuel costs. These latest numbers seemed to align with the warnings of Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, who has recently emphasized that the central bank’s campaign against inflation is far from over. Wall Street was discouraged. Stock prices slumped on the C.P.I. report, and more investors bet on the likelihood that the Fed would raise interest rates above 5 percent.

Credit…Giacomo Bagnara

What’s Next? (Feb. 19-25)

Bitcoin’s Bounce

Bitcoin appears to be staging a comeback, reaching a high last Thursday that hasn’t been seen for the past eight months. It has been a gloomy time for cryptocurrency traders, a typically optimistic bunch. The optimism seems to have returned even under the looming specter of a regulatory crackdown on their sector, the result of the implosion at Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange, FTX. Last week, for example, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule that would limit asset managers’ ability to put customers’ money into crypto assets, among other restrictions. Still, there are a few reasons investors may be giving Bitcoin a boost despite these developments: One is that Bitcoin is relatively more established than other so-called altcoins, potentially making it more attractive during a volatile time.

What the Fed Was Thinking

The Fed will give some insight into its most recent rate decision when it releases the minutes from its Jan. 31-Feb. 1 meeting on Wednesday. For those who have been closely watching the central bank, and listening to Mr. Powell’s news conferences, there are likely to be few surprises. After the Fed’s last interest rate increase of a quarter point, Mr. Powell was careful to note that while the “disinflationary process” had begun, the Fed had not yet declared victory in its fight to bring down inflation and would continue to raise rates — and keep them high. Investors on Wall Street who sent the stock market higher may have been cheering just a touch too loudly to hear these nuances, but Wednesday’s Fed minutes will probably include similar messaging.

A Union Effort at Tesla

Tesla fired more than a dozen employees last week, including several who had been leading a union drive at a company plant in Buffalo. The employees had gone public with their union campaign only days earlier, according to a complaint filed by Tesla workers to the National Labor Relations Board. In the filing, the workers accused the electric carmaker of “retaliation for union activity,” arguing that some of the terminated employees had been illegally dismissed. Tesla’s Buffalo factory produces solar panels and components for charging equipment, and employs about 800 people. In announcing their union drive, the factory’s workers said they wanted better pay and benefits, saying they receive wages below the national average and aren’t allowed much sick time.

What Else?

In other Tesla news, the carmaker is recalling 362,000 vehicles equipped with its Full Self Driving assistance system after federal regulators found it increased the risk of accidents. Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s chief executive, said on Thursday that she was stepping down. And though the war in Ukraine will hit its first anniversary this week, construction companies around the world are already readying for the reconstruction of the country once the fighting is over.

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