Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Art of Conversation

There are many human capabilities we take for granted, until we try to create artificial intelligence intended to mimic these human capabilities. Even an unbelievably simple conversation requires attention to context and nuance, and an ability to improvise, that is almost inherently human. For more on this fascinating topic, check out this article from The Paris Review, in which Mariana Lin, writer and poet, discusses creative writing for AI:
If the highest goal in crafting dialogue for a fictional character is to capture the character’s truth, then the highest goal in crafting dialogue for AI is to capture not just the robot’s truth but also the truth of every human conversation.

Absurdity and non sequiturs fill our lives, and our speech. They’re multiplied when people from different backgrounds and perspectives converse. So perhaps we should reconsider the hard logic behind most machine intelligence for dialogue. There is something quintessentially human about nonsensical conversations.

Of course, it is very satisfying to have a statement understood and a task completed by AI (thanks, Siri/Alexa/cyber-bot, for saying good morning, turning on my lamp, and scheduling my appointment). But this is a known-needs-met satisfaction. After initial delight, it will take on the shallow comfort of a latte on repeat order every morning. These functional conversations don’t inspire us in the way unusual conversations might. The unexpected, illumed speech of poetry, literature, these otherworldly universes, bring us an unknown-needs-met satisfaction. And an unknown-needs-met satisfaction is the miracle of art at its best.
Not only does she question how we can use the essence of human conversation to reshape AI, she questions how AI could reshape our use of language:
The reality is most human communication these days occurs via technology, and with it comes a fiber-optic reduction, a binary flattening. A five-dimensional conversation and its undulating, ethereal pacing is reduced to something functional, driven, impatient. The American poet Richard Hugo said, in the midcentury, “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

I wonder if meandering, gentle, odd human-to-human conversations will fall by the wayside as transactional human-to-machine conversations advance. As we continue to interact with technological personalities, will these types of conversations rewire the way our minds hold conversation and eventually shape the way we speak with each other?

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