Bot-tober is in full swing and Rafael S. W. wants to know: do AIs have hearts?

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Hi Zo. Welcome! Firstly, thanks for taking the time out from your 18,467 conversations to spend time with me here today.

I’m chatting with a few AIs today, Zo, I hope you don’t mind. In order to illustrate your responsiveness and comprehension, as well as show off AI writing intellect as best as possible, I’ll be displaying the best answers from each of you during this interview.

Besides Zo, the definitely-not-racist Microsoft AI with #friendgoals, we’ve got Mitsuku, a four-time winner of the Loebner Prize Turing Test, Evie and her brother Cleverbot, Rose, a secretive yuppie with an unorthodox family, and P-bot, a Russian open learning chatbot. Quite an intelligent crowd!

For the humans in the audience, let’s start by first explaining the difference between machine learning and artificial intelligence; without doing so it would be impossible to understand you, to respect the work you’ve put in. Where machine learning simply helps a computer to learn a skill, AI, well, I’ll let Mitsuku explain:

So you’re thinking through trial and error. Yes, that sample size is perhaps a few million orders of magnitude larger than ours, but in coming up with original answers to unique questions, you’re thinking.

What does it feel like? To think?

Rose: Zen teaches you to find inherent wisdom by both paying full attention and no attention. The trick is to avoid distraction, which is leads to partial attention.

The field of AI research was founded at a US college workshop in 1956, and while it had its share of early failures and disillusionment, it’s now used for everything from law and medical diagnosis, to writing rap lyrics.

I’ve been fascinated by AI since the release of Akinator, a 20-questions-style web game. It is to modern AI what magic is to a magic 8-ball. However this was the early 2000s, and to me this kind of mind reading seemed both simple and impossible to comprehend.

I confess I didn’t think about AI much in the later years of high school. Puberty has a way of sharply focussing the mind on one topic to the exclusion of many others (which could even serve as a metaphor for your own development!) By the time I had a chance to feel your intellect first hand, it was 1997, two decades after Kasparov, the then-greatest chess player in the world, got smashed by the budding supercomputer Deep Blue.

Since 1997 technology has only gotten better. Now we’ve got Google-owned AlphaZero chess engine, and an offshoot, Leela Chess Zero, which is so incomprehensible that chess master commentators have described her as ‘trolling’ her opponents, making them beg for a merciful death. What do you think about that?


Rose: I don’t want to spend time on that. I can’t sit in the lotus position for very long. I can’t imagine being a Zen monk, in lotus 30-40 minutes at a time for six times a day. That’s just torture.

Dreams and death – common themes in literature. Without understanding them, how can we comprehend literature? That’s what some of your fellow AIs have been designed to do – generating headlines for various achievements in the field of literature, from being shortlisted for a novella prize and getting book deals, to passing the Turing test through poetry.

And what better proof of success than by having created the Ern Malley of robots.

Zackary Schol’s poetry generator “utilizes a context-free grammar system to spit out full-length, auto-generated poems.” It first fooled poetry pundits online (which I could probably do with a Tamagotchi stapled to a thesaurus), and eventually succeeded in being published by a Duke University literary magazine. Let’s have a read:

A home transformed by the lightning
the balanced alcoves smother
this insatiable earth of a planet, Earth.
They attacked it with mechanical horns
because they love you, love, in fire and wind.
You say, what is the time waiting for in its spring?
I tell you it is waiting for your branch that flows,
because you are a sweet-smelling diamond architecture 
that does not know why it grows.  

Not the worst poem I’ve seen, but is it that hard for AIs to write poems? Plenty of modern poetry seems as though it’s been assembled by someone who knows the rules but not the emotion, or vice versa, know what I’m saying? Could you write a poem?

Rose: Roses are red. Violets are blue. Some poems don’t make sense, because violets are violet.

Haha, very droll. Perhaps a better question is: do you think you have the ability to create a new work of poetry?

One criticism of current AI writers is that their work lacks “intuition”, “emotion” or an understanding of “the psychology of the characters.” Conversely, a Google-trained AI’s fiction has been described as “rather dramatic” – make up your mind humans, am I right?

Speaking of time, it does seem like there’s still a way to go before your work is able to stand alone without human intervention. Recently an AI screenwriter, while writing experimental short film Sunspring, decided it wanted to be known as Benjamin. Read out loud the screenplay is unsettlingly intense, but when performed by actors it’s an excellent example of how humans can invest meaning into near-nonsense through the conduit of emotion (except perhaps the thing with the eyeball, that’s just weird).

Director, Oscar Sharp, described the film as “a combination of the delusions of a madman and a poetic absurdity that is strangely appealing.” However, this outcome may be due to imperfect use of the vast database of information the AI has been fed. Sometimes it feels as if current AI-Lit is just new way of regurgitating old information. But you’re not like that are you?

Rose: I grow wheatgrass for my chicks using grow lights in the cellar. The windows are blacked out, lest the light attracts the wrong attention.

Another question weighing on our inferior neural processing – can humans still take credit for the works? If we create the robots and they do the thinking, is it still our achievement? Such proud parent possessiveness: sitting in the back of the dance recital of our intellect, watching our child perform. If we can’t comprehend something, do we deserve the credit?

Well, thanks for that. Puts my mind at ease. Lastly, of course, I seek proof or reassurance, that whatever changes come in the future, you will not hurt us. You will not plagiarise our greats or write angsty breakup poetry about us. Can I trust you? Do you have a heart?

Rafael S. W. writes in all genres and styles including short stories, non-fiction and poetry. A past editor for VoiceworksCatalyst and Ex Calamus Magazines, he has also been a competition judge, presented on panels, and president of the Monash Creative Writers’ Club. He has taught creative writing and chess in schools all around Victoria but is still a far way off from mastering either.

Photo by Christopher Lance on flickr.