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Humanist Archives: April 9, 2021, 8:14 a.m. Humanist 34.321 - simply artificial: Lem's Electronic Bard & deep learning

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 321.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-04-08 06:48:23+00:00
        From: Jan Rybicki <>
        Subject: ODP: [Humanist] 34.318: simply artificial?

Dear Willard,

Following up on Michael Falk's post below, Lem's story of Elektrybałt, or
Electronic Bard, can be seen as being presciently ironic on our greatest hope,
Deep Learning:

Trurl decided to silence (Klapaucius) once and for all by building a machine
that could write poetry. First Trurl collected eight hundred and twenty tons of
books on cybernetics and twelve thousand tons of the finest poetry, then sat
down to read it all. Whenever he felt he just couldn't take another chart or
equation, he would switch over to verse, and vice versa. After a while it became
clear to him that the construction of the machine itself was child's play in
comparison with the writing of the program. The program found in the head of an
average poet, after all, was written by the poet's civilization (ah! How
Eliotic! comment mine), and that civilization was in turn programmed by the
civilization that preceded it, and so on to the very Dawn of Time, when those
bits of information that concerned the poet-to-be were still swirling about in
the primordial chaos of the cosmic deep. Hence in order to program a poetry
machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the
beginning—or at least a good piece of it.

And there's the rub, even if we are not steering towards the apocalyptic vision
at the end of Lem's story.

Jan Rybicki

-----Wiadomość oryginalna-----
Od: Humanist <>
Wysłano: czwartek, 8 kwietnia 2021 08:06
Temat: [Humanist] 34.318: simply artificial?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 318.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                                Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-04-07 08:53:27+00:00
        From: Michael Falk <>
        Subject: Re: simply artificial

Hey Willard,

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 correctly.

Of course, the people in charge are quite aware of this ironic situation. Hence
the sick joke of Amazon's 'Mechanical Turk'.


Michael Falk
Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Studies
School of English | University of Kent, UK Adjunct Fellow in Digital Humanities
Digital Humanities Research Initiative | Western Sydney University, Australia 

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