Friday, May 18, 2007

To what do your emotions...adhere?

Over at ASWOBA, John has an excellent post about artificial intelligence. I highly recommend it--both for his post, and for the article in Discovery to which he links. (It features two computer AIs trying to have what I'd guess you'd call a conversation.)

For some reason, it all reminded me of a Donald Barthelme short story called "The Explanation." (It's in Forty Stories, for those who wish to check it out). It's not an easy story to excerpt, but I hope some of its cool, uneasy brilliance comes through in the selections below. (By the way, the story features a recurring 'picture' of a machine, which the questioner alludes to throughout. The picture is of a square, about three inches by three inches, which is totally and completely black.)

Q: Do you believe that this machine could be helpful in changing the government?
A: Changing the government...
Q: Making it more responsive to the needs of the people?
A: I don't know what it is. What does it do?
Q: Well, look at it.
A: It offers no clues.
Q: It has a certain...reticence.
A: I don't know what it does.
Q: A lack of confidence in the machine.

* * *

Q: You don't trust the machine?
A: Why should I trust it?
Q: (States his own lack of interest in machines)

* * *

Q: Do you want to have your picture taken with me?
A: I don't like to have my picture taken.
Q: Do you believe that, at some point in the future, one will be able to achieve sexual satisfaction, "complete" sexual satisfaction, for instance by taking a pill?
A: I doubt that it's impossible.
Q: You don't like the idea.
A: No. I think that under these conditions, we would know less than we do now.
Q: Know less about each other.
A: Of course.

* * *

Q: I have a number of error messages I'd like to introduce here and I'd like you to study them carefully...they're numbered. I'll go over them with you: undefined variable...improper sequence of operators...improper use of hierarchy...missing operator...mix mode, that one's particularly grave...argument of a function is fixed-point...improper character in constant...improper floating-point constant...invalid character transmitted in sub-program statement, that's a END statement.
A: I like them very much.
Q: There are hundreds of others, hundreds and hundreds.
A: You seem emotionless.
Q: That's not true.
A: To what do your emotions...adhere, if I can put it that way?

* * *

Q: There's no point in arguing that the machine is wholly successful, but it has its qualities. I don't like to use anthropomorphic language in talking about these machines, but there is one quality...
A: What is it?
Q: It's brave.
A: Machines are braver than art.
Q: Since the death of the bicycle.


JMW said...

Thanks, Tim. Glad the post inspired this one - Barthelme was brilliant. Those excerpts seem increasingly (and frighteningly) relevant, don't they? I need to go back and re-read some of my favorite of his stories now. I remember particularly liking the one about the guy writing to his girlfriend's srhink (about a piano she wanted?)

Tim said...

That is one of his very best. It's called "The Sandman." It's in 60 Stories.

Cold said...

dude. did you just type all that in?