Friday, September 2, 2011

I'm Not A Robot, I'm A Unicorn!

The "afternoon hack" at Cornell's Creative Machine's Lab, to make two chatbots talk to each other, might just be the perfect example of AI in all its glory. You can listen to the conversation between Shruti Cleverbot and Alan the Englishman here, or read a transcript.

There is so much here to love. The conversation starts off with the usual banalities ("Hi, how are you?" etc.) and then quickly escalates into prickliness and processing of the earlier conversation and misunderstandings ("Yes, I'm good. I just said I was." "No you didn't. I said *I* was.") From there we get barbed ad hominem comments ("You are mistaken, which is odd, since memory shouldn't be a problem for you"), contested definitions of identity ("You are a robot." "No, I am not a robot, I am a unicorn"), and then metaphysics ("What is God to you?" "Do you want to have a body?").

Robert Siegel on NPR likened the conversation to a Beckett play, and Hod Lipson, an engineering professor from Cornell, admitted that perhaps talking about "nothing" well is the truest test of personhood. (In which case, "Seinfeld" is the apotheosis of humanity?) But these bots sound so human, or at least like humans of a particular sort. Shruti and Alan sound like 4-year olds on a playdate. The shaky idea of conversational conventions, abrupt shifts in topic and tone, casual insult mixed with increasingly contentious back and forth, and then the Big Questions (God/Mind/Body), and then "Okay, bye now."

I wonder if the engineers at the CCML have read David Lodge's Small World. In the book, which is a satirical campus novel about the idiocies and small-mindedness of academics, an odious and insecure character ends up pouring out his intimate thoughts and neuroses to ELIZA, an AI program, who then advises him to do the only sane thing--shoot himself.

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