Language processing and machines

Stephen Marche, a great long form writer, looks at the state of AI and its ability to process and adapt to language. Short summary? It’s further along than you think. That said, this post is mostly an excuse for me to rave about Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which I read over the weekend and was floored by. If I’d had to choose a favourite book of all time before this, it really might have been his Never Let Me Go. Now I think it might be a toss-up between them. This book continues in Never Let Me Go‘s rich line of inquiry on meaning, societal standing/value, and “the soul”, and is so heart-rending and mind-bending in its implications (because that’s the bread and butter of Ishiguro — implications) that I literally couldn’t do other work until it was done. Now I feel gutted and can’t stop thinking about it and the world it depicted. Ok, back to Marche and AIs… Fascinating and scary.

Engineers and scientists fear artificial intelligence in a way they have not feared any technology since the atomic bomb. Stephen Hawking has declared that “AI could be the worst event in the history of civilization.” Elon Musk, not exactly a technophobe, calls AI “our greatest existential threat.” Outside of AI specialists, people tend to fear artificial intelligence because they’ve seen it at the movies, and it’s mostly artificial general intelligence they fear, machine sentience. It’s Skynet from Terminator. It’s Data from Star Trek. It’s Ex Machina. It’s Her. But artificial general intelligence is as remote as interstellar travel; its existence is imaginable but not presently conceivable. Nobody has any idea what it might look like. Meanwhile, the artificial intelligence of natural language processing is arriving. In January, 2021, Microsoft filed a patent to reincarnate people digitally through distinct voice fonts appended to lingual identities garnered from their social media accounts. I don’t see any reason why it can’t work. I believe that, if my grandchildren want to ask me a question after I’m dead, they will have access to a machine that will give them an answer and in my voice. That’s not a “new soul.” It is a mechanical tongue, an artificial person, a virtual being. The application of machine learning to natural language processing achieves the imitation of consciousness, not consciousness itself, and it is not science fiction. It is now.

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