Tuesday, September 19, 2023

ChatGPT and the Defecating Duck

For dog owners, the intelligence of dogs shows itself (among other things) in their ability to learn tricks. For cat owners, the intelligence of cats shows itself (among other things) in their disdain for learning tricks. 

When Alan Turing conceived of a way to tell computers and humans apart, now known as the Turing Test, he called it the Imitation Game. His first example was to ask a computer to write poetry - specifically a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge. And his idea of a plausible answer for the computer was to say: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.

No doubt many people have tested ChatGPT with exactly the same question. When Jessica Riskin tried it, she was not impressed by its efforts. She found Turing’s imaginary machine’s answer (Turing imitating a machine imitating a human) infinitely more persuasive (as indicator of intelligence) than ChatGPT’s. Turing’s imagined intelligent machine gives off an unmistakable aura of individual personhood, even of charm.

An earlier article by Professor Riskin described a mechanical automaton that attracted large admiring crowds in 18th century Paris. This was a generative pretrained transformer in the shape of a duck, which appeared to convert pellets of food into pellets of excrement. The inventor is careful to say that he wants to show, not just a machine, but a process. But he is equally careful to say that this process is only a partial imitation.

Whereas ChatGPT's bad imitation of poetry is real shit.

Jessica Riskin, The Defecating Duck, or, The Ambiguous Origins of Artifical Life (Critical Enquiry, 2003)

Jessica Riskin, A Sort of Buzzing Inside My Head (New York Review of Books, 25 June 2023)

Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (Mind 1950)

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