Wednesday 23 March 2016

The Intriguing Potential of Non-Human Readers

Technology seems to be advancing at break-neck speed these days, with innovations taking place in many areas of our lives. Things that we rely on on a daily basis would have appeared miraculous just decades before.

Captain Picard from TV's Star Trek with a Data Padd, next to Steve Jobs with his iPad. Image Source:

One particular advancement that I find difficult to fully comprehend is the development of artificial intelligence. The concept is clear to me, but the long-term implications of it and the practical development of it blows my mind.

Something that got me thinking recently was a study that I came across via a favourite blog of mine in which a computer program was fed thousands of works of fiction and then asked to predict human behaviour based on what it had 'read'. In 71 percent of cases it successfully predicted what a person would do in a given circumstance. The detail of the study is fascinating (and can be found here). The applications for this kind of technology seem incredible.

Image source: Radicktv, via Giphy.

Amongst the potential uses include a device for visually impaired people to wear that could provide the user with information relating to things within their immediate vicinity that would be relevant to their predicted needs. For example the device might inform the wearer of a seat nearby if it 'felt' that they might like to sit down or rest.

I particularly like the literary angle to this. In this instance the machine was given the contents of the writing community Wattpad (a site which, according to Wikipedia, is a host for articles, stories, fan fiction, and poems). What if it were given the complete works of Oscar Wilde or the out-put of the controversial writer Michel Houellebecq? Would its predictions be tainted by the author's world view?

Could this technology bring authors back from the dead? Could a machine create a new Shakespeare play given access to his works and an input of our choosing? Articles are already being written by computers, so this may not be as far-out as it seems.

It puts me in mind of Deep Thought, the computer that calculated the answer to 'Life the Universe and Everything' in Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. With access to all those works of imagination, what might these machines learn about the human race that we don't already know about ourselves? Perhaps within our lifetime's we may begin to find out.

Deep Thought, revealing the answer. Image Credit: Igor Canova.


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