Humanist Archives: April 8, 2021, 7:05 a.m. Humanist 34.318 - simply artificial?
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 318.
Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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Date: 2021-04-07 08:53:27+00:00
From: Michael Falk
Subject: Re: simply artificial
I think there is another option, the one considered by Jonathan Swift in
Book III of 'Gulliver's Travels'.
In the academy of Lagado, as many here may recall, a scientist has built
a mechanical text-generation machine, with which he hopes to make all
authors in the kingdom redundant. The machine uses a simple bag-of-words
model. The probability a particular word will be emitted by the machine
is determined by the probability of its part of speech. Nouns, verbs and
prepositions are more likely to be generated than adjectives and
interjections. The scientist's idea is that this machine slave will
replace human workers (authors), yielding an efficiency bonus.
Of course, in fact the machine does nothing of the sort. To Swift's
mind, the creation of machine slaves only multiplies the number of human
slaves. For the scientist's computer to work, 40 people are required to
crank the handles, 6-8 of whom to double-duty as scribes who write down
the sentences emitted by the machine, and judge which sentences are
actually good prose.
It is a prescient passage. Today, an artificial agent like Siri or Alexa
might seem like a 'companion' to the end user, but the situation surely
seems very different to the thousands of contractors who listen to
users' voice commands and check that Siri or Alexa have interpreted them
Of course, the people in charge are quite aware of this ironic
situation. Hence the sick joke of Amazon's 'Mechanical Turk'.
Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Studies
School of English | University of Kent, UK
Adjunct Fellow in Digital Humanities
Digital Humanities Research Initiative | Western Sydney University,
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