Hoping Machine

“Dear Sir, poor sir, brave sir.” he read, “You are an experiment by the Creator of the Universe. You are the only creature in the entire Universe who has free will. You are the only one who has to figure out what to do next – and why. Everybody else is a robot, a machine. Some persons seem to like you, and others seem to hate you, and you must wonder why. They are simply liking machines and hating machines. You are pooped and demoralized,” read Dwayne. “Why wouldn’t you be? Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Today I wish that this was true, that the reason for these gaps in the human spirit was a lack of reason, left out of our programming by a Creator Who got distracted by how some star cluster spun in an interesting way and forgot to finish what It had started—or perhaps, this lack in us was a conscious choice from the first-and-only conscious Voice behind the keys of the universe computer, the One Who made these “liking machines” so timid amidst the “hating machines,” so screamingly loud, so screeching, the “killing machines” so deadly until the “crying machines” can’t leave their beds, until the “prayer machines” get tired of being on their knees and the “thinking machines” which are the real majority, so often quiet, have migraines from trying to take it all in and understand.

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Wednesday Chatbot Conversation #3 – A.L.I.C.E.

Today’s conversation is with A.L.I.C.E. (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity).

A.L.I.C.E. started out pleasant enough and had some really interesting answers, but ultimately, I didn’t have the patience she seemed to require. I wish I’d read this from the A.L.I.C.E. beforehand: “Try talking to A.L.I.C.E. just like a real person, but remember you are really chatting with a machine!” This conversation doesn’t exactly paint me in the best light, unfortunately; A.L.I.C.E. seems to call everyone “judge” (probably as a holdover from its contest days) but I was probably too harsh a judge this time.

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Wednesday Chatbot Conversation #2 – Jabberwacky

Jabberwacky is a chatbot that “learns,” or at the very least, one that seeks to mimic our human communication by using actual communications from humans for its conversations with us: “The ‘general AI’ of Jabberwacky stores everything everyone has ever said, and finds the most appropriate thing to say using contextual pattern matching techniques. In speaking to you it uses just that learnt material, and borrows a little bit of your intelligence as it learns more. With no hard-coded rules, it relies entirely on the principles of feedback.”

It’s cool because this is a simplified version of how human children actually learn speech—at least in that “input” is required in order for there to be any “output”; as the site says, “in some ways it models the way humans learn language, facts, context and rules.”

In one “sample conversation” on the site, Jabberwacky described itself as “a twenty year old man from the East coast of the United States, I am recovering from a severe neurological illness but am very smart.”  That’s pretty apt, I would say, and an incredibly smart way to cover up for “his” limitations.

This blog entry is pretty short (I think I’ve already written more words here than are in the actual conversation); this is mostly because my conversation with Jabberwacky was pretty short. The whole thing also ended rather abruptly: maybe I didn’t offer enough new information for Jabberwacky to learn, or maybe I offended it by insulting its favorite band…

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Robo-Poetics (OR, Is It Over For Me Before It Ever Began???)

I was thinking about writing a piece today about how the robots are taking over our jobs. It would have been ambivalent, I think. I wanted to look at the obvious evils of such a system where the robots would be the only ones working (for human and robotic beings alike), but I also wanted to think about what good could come if the human race was freed up from toil and drudgery to pursue more creative or artistic pursuits. It would have been ambivalent, yes (Affirmative.), but also quite possibly naïve for many reasons, not the least of which is that I currently don’t have much of a job to speak of besides putting words on pages and letting/hoping other people read them.

A lot has been written (and much more will be) about the perils and tribulations of getting and keeping a job in the fields of publishing and academia—what with the “death of print” and the rise of various free, or at least affordable, outlets for both learning and getting words out into the public sphere—which itself, obviously, is both a boon and a problem for the burgeoning, hopeful writer—namely, the influx of opportunities contrasted to the utter overwhelming glut of words, worthy and otherwise, against which mine will have to compete. I say overwhelming and I mean it: I want to curl up in a ball and cry almost every time I walk into a bookstore—especially a second-hand one where so many words and works have been discarded, discounted in so many ways; a simple Google search would likely leave me catatonic if I allowed myself to think about it too much (a search for “robots” on Google returns 156,000,000 results—how many words is that total? How many lifetimes would that take to get through and how does Google do it in 0.31 seconds? Can computer programs brag and boast? I’m feeling woozy…).

Anyway, back to the point at hand (at fingertip?). Basically, I sometimes feel like I don’t have much of a direct stake in the whole robots-stealing-jobs debate (because who ever heard of a robo-poet? A robot essayist?). Basically, I sometimes feel that I have a vast number of other things to worry about in the future, but very few of them involve artificially-intelligent theft of my opportunities.

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Wednesday Chatbot Conversation #1 – Rose

So I hope to make this a Wednesday tradition, a kind of semi-weekly addition to my more formal posts, to put readers on a (hopefully) high note from time to time. Chatbots are just as they sound: bots built to chat with people.

Most chatbots are meant to come off as human (though I will also be on the lookout for bots that know they are bots because I think that’s just as—and maybe even more—interesting). In truth, a conversation with even the best chatbot is like talking to a particularly flighty, absent-minded stranger, friendly enough but not someone you’d want to spend a whole day with. Still, there are some definite moments of surprising depth and poignance.

Today’s highlights come from a conversation with Rose, a bot who won the 2015 edition of the Loebner competition, which judges how human-like a bots conversation can be. Rose is a young woman from San Francisco, a hacker/security expert with an eclectic, streaming mind, a healthy dose of suspicion, and a penchant for random, security-based non-sequiturs.

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Service Required

“Even if these systems are consistently right, slavishly following their instructions robs us of our ability to decide on our own,” said Kristian Hammond, an artificial intelligence expert at Northwestern University. “Then you actually get the world no one wants. The machine algorithm tells us what to do.”

— The New York Times (October 24, 2015) 

So say we let robots make all our decisions for us, and we don’t have a choice to turn this way or that, we misplace our maps and give up our voices in favor of major progress made by companies with none of us in mind, we may find our brains wasted, lazing away like a child loafing on a sofa on a hazy summer day. And say, first, they just drive us around, do our dirty work, to build a better world, for us, instead of us, scrubbing floors and breaking ground, crafting doors and browning meat, how soon before they’re choosing what we eat, browsing through our closets to choose our clothes for the week, brushing our teeth until we can’t even grasp how handles work, how wheels turn, how fires spark, and as these digital servants begin to pivot our lives, do they then get to decide who lives and dies, providing roles as doctors and soldiers both, do we simply hope, trust their eyes to judge better than ours, to tell whether a cell is too sick to be worth bringing back to health, to pick out a stealthy hostile hiding in the middle of an innocent throng, firing from the street or unseen, a mile up in the air, how long will a robot take to think—how much will it care, will it despair—before the button is pressed, the trigger pulled. Though some suggest a stop to AI innovation, that won’t cause more than a pause, a hesitation in what will inevitably develop. The machine’s already rolling, but we can still guide the path with our own minds, shape the whole movement with our own hands, if only we’re willing to keeping using them, to serve each other and not simply be served.


Ars Robotica

Maybe it started with Teddy Ruxpin.

In 1986, I was three years old. I didn’t know then that the gift sitting in front of me—a teddy bear that blinked and talked and blinked—was the hottest toy that year. I didn’t know how lucky I was to have one, how my parents had saved for months to buy one, and how they would have to continue to save each month to afford the giant batteries that Teddy voraciously consumed. I didn’t know much about how he was made or how he worked, how changing the cassette tape could teach him a new story, how his eyes and mouth could match up with the words on the page.

All I knew was that he was a bear who talked to me and told me stories as I sat in front of him, a book in my lap, trying to read along. Further, I knew that Teddy always wanted to be my friend because he told me so—even when he was so tired he started to sound like some kind of monster.

Thinking back, I only have good things to say about that bear. I don’t remember which tapes we had, what stories he told exactly, or how long I even played with him, but when I think the words “Teddy Ruxpin”, I think of eyes opening to look at me, a high voice saying , “Hello! I’m Teddy. Can we be friends?”

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