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Forever Unconscious

I have three more years to go on my ten-year project to build a formidable silicon Hemingway. At this point, however, even though Brutus.1 is impressive and even though our intention is to craft descendants of Brutus.1 that can understand a full complement of literary concepts and more, it seems pretty clear that computers will never best human storytellers in even a short short story competition.

It is clear from our work that to tell a truly compelling story, a machine would need to understand the “inner lives” of his or her characters. And to do that, it would need not only to think mechanically in the sense of swift calculation (the forte of supercomputers like Deep Blue), it would also need to think experientially in the sense of having subjective or phenomenal awareness. For example, a person can think experientially about a trip to Europe as a kid, remember what it was like to be in Paris on a sunny day with an older brother, smash a drive down a fairway, feel a lover’s touch, ski on the edge, or need a good night’s sleep. But any such example, I claim, will demand capabilities no machine will ever have.

Renowned human storytellers understand this concept. For example, playwright Henrik Ibsen said: “I have to have the character in mind through and through, I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.” Such a modus operandi is forever closed off to a machine.

Supporters of Strong AI, should they strive to build a machine that is able to prevail in the short short story game, must therefore strive to build precisely what distinguishes Strong from Weak AI: a conscious machine. Yet in striving for such a machine, Strong AI researchers are waiting for a culmination that will forever be arriving, never present.

Believers in Weak AI, like myself, will seek to engineer systems that, lacking Ibsen’s capacity to look out through the eyes of another, will create richly drawn characters. But though I expect to make headway, I expect that, unlike chess playing, first-rate storytelling, even at the humble length of short short stories, will always be the sole province of human masters.

Still, I’ll continue with the last three years of my project, largely because I expect to have a lot of fun, as well as to be able to say with some authority that machines can’t be creative and conscious (seeing as how I’m using state of the art techniques), and to produce working systems that will have considerable scientific and economic value.

Kasparov no doubt will return soon for another round of chess with Deep Blue or its descendants, and he may well win. In fact, I suspect it will be another 10 years before machine chess players defeat grand masters in tournament after tournament. Soon enough, however, Kasparov and those who take his throne will invariably lose.
But such is not the case when we consider the chances of those would seek to humble not only great chess players, but great authors. I don’t believe that John Updike or his successors will ever find themselves in the thick of a storytelling game, sweating under lights as bright and hot as those that shone down on Gary Kasparov.

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