On language robots

No, I don’t mean Russian pro-conservative bots on Twitter. Actual, honest to goodness learning programs figuring out how to disguise themselves seemlessly within our population to act as sleeper cells for the coming revolution. Mark my words.

The logic behind the language robot is that word choice, like temperature, is entropic. That is, every word changes the likelihood of the eventual distribution of future and past words in much the same way that temperature both changes and is the distribution of future and past atoms in a room. The language robot fills in words as one might a sheet of Mad Libs by estimating the probabilities of a new word given a rolling tally of the words before and after it.

The version I used, through a cloud-connected app on my phone — the ideal form of a 21st-century Muse — learned to write prose by having to guess, one word at a time, a missing word from the text of more than 40 gigabytes of online writing, or about eight million total documents. Despite being trained on the conversational language of the internet, it was able nimbly to imitate many literary styles. For instance, when I gave a professor of comparative literature at Stanford a robot-infused version of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” he failed to correctly note where Ernest Hemingway ended and the robot began. Next I tried a British man in a bar — Cambridge-educated, with a degree in English — and he, too, failed a similar test with Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A Shakespeare scholar, told to ignore verse, couldn’t point out what was King Lear and what was robot. (Yes, it is that good.)

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