Can a Computer Ever Learn to Talk?
An A.I. expert surveys the state of machine communication, from Stu-Bot to OpenAI’s controversial predictive text generator
In the opening to The Lost World, Michael Crichton’s 1995 sequel to Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm gives a lecture at the illustrious Santa Fe Institute (SFI), an elite research facility in the high desert of northern New Mexico. Malcolm, you might recall, is an awkward but prescient mathematician and chaos theorist; in Jurassic Park he warned of disaster and barely escaped being eaten by a T. rex. In the sequel, Malcolm is back in top form, lecturing to a rapt audience of SFI scientists about “Life at the Edge of Chaos.”
While Ian Malcolm is a fictional character, the Santa Fe Institute is a real place, and in 1995 I was a member of its faculty. Like all the SFI staff, I was outwardly amused but secretly delighted that our institute was featured in a blockbuster sci-fi thriller. The rumor was that Crichton had based the skeptical Ian Malcolm on an actual iconoclastic SFI scientist named Stuart Kauffman. Not only did The Lost World quote Kauffman in its epigraph, but Malcolm’s fictional lecture sounded suspiciously similar to some of Kauffman’s writings.
One day at lunch the institute’s librarian announced, while laughing, that the library had been receiving requests for Ian Malcolm’s scientific papers. The institute’s younger postdocs instantly knew what they had to do. In short order, “Ian Malcolm” was added to the faculty list on SFI’s website, and his personal web page appeared, featuring a photo of Jeff Goldblum (who played him in the Jurassic Park movies). The page included a list of “Ian Malcolm’s recent publications,” with such titles as “Simulating the Organization of Structures Defies Expectation,” “Self-Organization in Endogenous Change in Consciousness is Limited,” and “Combinatorial Considerations in the Organization of Awareness (a Treatise).”
While embarrassingly plausible as papers by SFI scientists, these titles were actually generated by a computer program written by an enterprising SFI postdoc. The program — dubbed Stu-Bot — was designed to generate an infinite number of paper titles in the style of Stuart Kauffman’s writings. It did this by creating what linguists call a…