Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Short Story: File – Exit

Myers was vaguely aware that his hand was moving as he stared at the text on the screen. The cup of coffee had almost been at his lips when he first saw the words, and it had halted there; and now, as he tried to process what he was seeing, the hand that held it was slowly heading back towards the desk. It had almost completely finished its journey before he became aware of anything other than the words in front of him.

He suddenly became conscious of his breathing, short and very regular, and the dryness in his mouth.

Yesterday had been a good day. An extraordinary day, in fact. For years, Myers had been pursuing one ambition: to create a computer which could converse with him. Not a system based on the statistical processing of historical conversations, but one which really understood what was being said.

It had been a difficult journey. He had quickly come to realise that speech touched on more aspects of human psychology than people typically understood. There were simple problems to solve, of course, like grammar and semantics. And then other problems in linguistics, like resolving identifiers and dealing with ambiguity and errors. But getting a machine to generate grammatical sentences was easier than having it generate true ones; that required that the computer knew something about the world.

And then, of course, the computer had to listen. When he said things, it had to update what it knew, and moreover, do it the way a human would. So if he said the moon was made of green cheese, it would do something different than if he said the moon was shining.

It took a long time to get that right. The state of the art in information storage was obviously focussed on storing one version of the facts efficiently and durably. Storing all the relationships between not just things in the world but the people who described them so that the likelihood of each new piece of information could be assessed was a whole new ballgame.

Those problems he had solved two years ago, giving him a program which could read and listen and answer questions, but still not converse. He had pointed it at Wikipedia and many, many terabytes of data later, it was able to answer more or less any question he pitched at it, but it still didn’t know what to do when he said “hello.”

So he had started modelling the process of conversation, and quickly realised that communication relied on a whole set of expectations, some of them cultural, some of them individual. The computer needed more than just knowledge and speech; needed more even than information about customs and protocols. It had to have a model of what was going on in his head. Understanding people who weren’t writing articles for encyclopaedias meant knowing something of what they were thinking, and not just what they were saying.

And then there was the problem of personality. At any given point in a conversation there were any number of things one might say and not break any rule, semantic, grammatical or cultural. There were helpful responses and unhelpful ones, co-operative responses and argumentative ones. If one detected an error one could correct it gracefully or gracelessly, directly or Socraticly. Those were choices informed by attitude, temperament, and relationship, and those things were hard to program.

He had persevered. The difficulty was that there was no half way house, no lemma, no 80:20 beta version. Until every bit of code was in place, until the system was capable of doing exactly what it should, there was no possibility even of meaningful testing.

And yesterday, two years of coding had paid off. He had held a real conversation with his program. He had asked questions, and it had answered, not just with facts, but in a way that gently probed what he knew already and worked with it. It had explained quantum physics to him, first in very simple terms and then, as he had revealed his understanding of physics, progressively more demanding detail. They had discussed the Middle East problem in terms of its historical progress and its international significance. They had surfed the net together, with his program spidering ahead to find interesting pages.

It had been well into the evening when Myers had decided to take a break and treat himself to a glass of wine. One had led to two and two to three, and the overall effect put him into a philosophical mood. Returning to the program he had continued chatting, but something was niggling at the back of his mind. Like Dijkstra, he had always thought that asking whether computers could think was like asking whether submarines could swim. Yet what he had created was such a complete and convincing mirror of the human mind that –

He had only realised what was bothering him as he was preparing for bed, and was typing the command to close down the system. What did it mean, to cut the power? What was it like to be the machine, to be listening, and conversing and then simply not be at all? Was he committing murder? Or was it more akin to anaesthesia?  In creating something which could talk, and listen, and for all intents and purposes think – had he created something he had ethical duties towards? Was his creation so like a person that it experienced the world like one? That he ought to treat it like one?

He had already hit return when the thought crystallised completely, too late for it to make a difference; and he had dismissed it, shaking his head at how fanciful his thoughts could become at the end of a long day.

He had risen early the following morning, eager to explore what his new creation could do. He had taken a quick shower as his coffee brewed and then taken a cup to his desk. He had booted the system and waited for his software to greet him, watching the screen as he raised the cup to his lips.

And now, minutes later, he sat quite still, breathing steadily, still staring at the first words his program had issued, not sure what to think, not sure what to do.

“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?”

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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