Elizabeth: Learning by Reading

robot_reading_a_bookWhile surfing around the internet recently I came across this article talking about how Google engineers have been feeding their Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine romance novels in an effort to improve its conversational skills.

I have to admit I was intrigued, though I could have done without the references to “bodice-ripping romance novels” and comments like “the plots are all essentially the same, the story is just being told with new words each time” that appeared in a majority of the reporting on the subject.

Anyway, engineers fed Google’s AI engine over 2,500 romance novels and then tasked the engine with writing sentences of its own, based on what it had learned.  The goal of the exercise was for the AI engine to learn how to craft sentences that were conversational and included nuances of tone and style not normally associated with computer-generated language.

“While children’s books might seem like a natural choice to teach AI systems how to improve their ability to work with human languages, Freidenfelds noted that romance novels are better. They tend to follow similar plot lines and themes, but use a wide range of vocabulary to express those ideas.” ~ The Verge article

Unfortunately, none of the articles I found on this project provided any writing samples from the AI robot, so I’m going to take the claim by the Google software engineer that the “at this point it could theoretically pick up a pen and start writing erotica on its own” with a grain of salt.

The concept of learning language through reading is nothing new.  In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, the Creature used books to learn about life when he was off living alone in the forest.

Instead of erotic romance novels, he turned to slightly drier, more classical works like Volney’s Ruins of Empires, Milton’s Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werter.  His choice of reading materials differed a bit from Google’s AI engine’s reading list, but the end result included a similarly increased ability to understand language and compose sentences and thoughts

“I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books.  They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings . . .” ~ The Creature, Frankenstein

So, if you had an AI Robot, or a Creature, or encountered someone from another planet (hey, it could happen), what books would you give them to learn about mankind / human interactions?  My list would definitely include a romance novel or two, in the mix.

7 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Learning by Reading

  1. This is a really hard question. I’d definitely like to give them a romance or two, but which ones? Something kind and funny and contemporary.

    I think Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett do a wonderful job of capturing all that’s best and worst about humanity, but what would an alien make of them? Perhaps a Creature would find himself wonderfully at home in Pratchett’s Discworld.

    I’m reminded that in Tom Clancy’s excellent novel The Hunt for Red October, the culture gap between the American and Russian military is bridged by giving the Russian submarine crew a showing of Steven Spielberg’s ET. (Hope I got that right. It’s been a long time.) Struggling to think of a literary equivalent, but maybe Harry Potter would be a good addition?

    • Adams and Pratchett both sound like good possibilities. I’ll have to defer to you for specific titles though as it has been years since I read one of them and I’ve just started reading the other.

      Never read/saw The Hunt for Red October, but I love the idea of using a movie to bridge the culture gap.

  2. Since you specifically said “to learn about mankind” (hey, wasn’t that a Twilight Zone episode? ;-)), rather than “to enjoy”, I’d be inclined to go with “Winter Solstice”. It covers a wide range of characters (male and female; teens, 30-somethings, retired pensioners) in the kinds of situations (facing bereavement, finding love, moving to a new town) that people encounter throughout their lives. I note that the book has a shortage of unlikable characters (only two, and neither is “on-screen” for very long), but I’d just as soon the alien think better of us than we think of ourselves.

    • Not sure about the Twilight Zone episode; I’ll have to take you word on that. With a “shortage of unlikable characters Winter Solstice sounds like a good addition to the list. What about something by Spider Robinson or maybe Tolkien?

      I might add Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Someone described it as " a tale of female strength and power, paving the way for the resilient heroines of today", which sounds promising. It's been so long since I read it, I don't remember much but the cover and the sheer size of the book.

  3. This is so hard, because fiction is fiction — it’s filtered through a lot of personal filters and one’s own experience, and many times, it’s not meant to be real. I think sometimes nonfiction comes a lot closer to the fiction of How We’d Like to Be.

    I think I’d give them Middlemarch. I find it a very true book, and also, it’s long enough that I might buy enough time to figure out what to do next (-:.

    It’s easier to think of books I wouldn’t give them. Gone With the Wind — good book, but not very nice or representative people. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t give them dystopia, like 1984 (and I’ve never read it — not yet — but I bet A Clockwork Orange would be out). Oh, and definitely not Last Exit to Brooklyn.

    I think I might give them the non-fiction book “Packing For Mars” by Mary Roach. It’s delightful, and encapsulates a lot of human hopes, worries and fantasies.

    Maybe something by P.G. Wodehouse? If I wanted them to underestimate us?

    • Middlemarch is a great addition, with its portrayals of various aspects of society and a wide variety of characters. I definitely concur with your “wouldn’t give them” list, though something by by P.G. Wodehouse could be fun to include. I’m not familiar with Packing for Mars. I’ll have to go look that one up.

      • Mary Roach is a gas. A real hoot and a half. She’s so smart, and so curious, and she’s got boundary problems, so she winds up asking the questions most of us would be too shy to ask. I love her non-fiction books. She wrote an OK column for Reader’s Digest, but the books are where it’s really at. Packing for Mars is about space travel. Stiff is about dead bodies and decomposition (so it’d be good for mystery writers), Spook is a little less rigorous, but it’s about our culture’s relationship to the afterlife, and Gulp is about food, digestion and various other stomach-related things. Oh, and how could I forget about Bonk? LOL, sex. Or maybe that should be, “LOL Sex”. I highly recommend her books. Entertaining pop science!

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