Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

A.I. and the Mastery of Spoken Language

The question isn’t just whether we are capable of making simulations of human speech but, rather, if bots can replicate the singular mind that gives form to all speech.

In Steven Spielberg’s dystopian film, A. I. Artificial Intelligence, a software designer played by William Hurt explains to a group of younger colleagues that it may be possible to make a robot that can love. He imagines a machine that can learn and use the language of “feelings.” The full design would create a “mecha”—a mechanized robot–nearly indistinguishable from a person. His goal in the short term was to make a test-case of a young boy who could be a replacement for a couple grieving their own child’s extended coma.

The film throws out a lot to consider. There are the stunning Spielberg effects of New York City drowning in ice and water several decades in to the future. But the core focus of the film is the experiment of creating a lifelike robot that could be something more than a “supertoy.”  As the story unfolds, it touches on the familiar subject of the Turing Test: the long-standing challenge to make language-based artificial intelligence that is good enough to be indistinguishable from the real thing.

Should we become attached to a machine packaged as one of us? Even without any intent to deceive, can spoken language be refined with algorithms to leap over the usual trip wires of learning a complex grammar, syntax and vocabulary?  It takes humans years to master their own language.

The long first act of the film lets us see an 11-year old Haley Joel Osment as “David,” effectively ingratiating himself to the Swinton family.  In my classes pondering the effects of A.I., this first segment was enough  to stop the film and ask members what seemed plausible and what looked like wild science fiction. I always hoped to encourage the view that no “bot” could converse in ordinary language with the ease and fluency of a normal kid.  That was my bias, but time has proven me wrong. If anything, David’s reactions were a bit too stiff to reflect the loquacious chatter bots around today. Using Siri, Alexa or IBM’s Watson as simple reference points, it is clear that we now have computer- generated language that has mostly mastered the challenges of formulating everyday speech. There’s no question current examples of synthetic varieties are remarkable.

Here’s an example you can try. I routinely have these short essays “read” back to me by Microsoft Word’s “Read Aloud” bot, which comes in the form of a younger male or female voice that can be activated from the “review” section in the top ribbon. Not having an editor, it helps to hear what I’ve written, often letting me hear garbled prose that my eyes have missed. I recall the first version of this addition to Word was pretty choppy: words piled on words without much of attention to their  intonation, or how they might fit within the arc of a complete sentence. Now the application reads with pauses and inflictions that mostly sound right, especially within the narrower realms of word usage focused on formal rather than idiomatic English.  Here is the second paragraph of this piece as read back to me via this Word function:

Of course, language “means” when it is received and interpreted by a person.  An individual has what artificial Intelligence does not: a personality, likes and dislikes, and a biography tied to a life cycle. Personality develops over time and shapes our intentions. It creates chapters of detail revealing our social and chronological histories as biological creatures. A key question isn’t whether we are capable of making simulations of human speech. And that begs an even bigger question about whether bots can replicate the unique mind within each of us that gives form to human speech.

Even tied to advanced machine-learning software, chatterbots easily use similarity to falsely suggest authenticity. And there’s the rub. Generating speech that implies preferences, complex feelings or emotions makes sense only when there is an implied “I.” For lack of a better word, with Siri or Watson there is no kindred soul at home. The language of a bot is a simulacrum: a copy of a natural artifact, but not a natural artifact itself.

Even so, we should celebrate what we have: machines that can verbalize fluently and–with complex algorithms–might speak to our own unique interests.

The Great Appreciators

Informed criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products.

This is an era in American life where the young seem as interested in becoming content creators than content appreciators. To be sure, this is a broad  and inexact distinction. But it is clear that a large segment of younger Americans today are ready to self-identify as musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, writers or audio producers, without much experience or training. The results are usually predictably modest: unplanned videos, under-edited and “published” books, magazine-inspired blogs, or derivative music produced in front of a computer.  Without doubt, serendipity has always had a place in producing wonderful new talent. But it is also true that more of us want to count ourselves as being a part of the broad media mix made possible with nearly universal internet access. It’s now hardly surprising to meet a middle schooler who edits their own videos or, after a fashion, curates their own web presence.  As You Tube demonstrates, self-produced media content is unmistakably popular.

If this first quarter of the new century is the age of the content producer, it seems that—broadly speaking—the last half of the previous century was an era for witnessing and reflecting on breathtaking talent. The decline of this impulse is a loss. An appreciator is more than a consumer. These are folks with an understanding of the history and conventions of a form, with an equal interest in exploring how new works can build on and stretch the most stale of cultural ideas. The best work of appreciators can be cautionary, encouraging, or fire us with the enthusiasm that comes with new insights. Productive analysis can help us fathom what we do not yet understand.

               Pauline Kael

In the previous century, critics and essayists of all kinds of art were ubiquitous. Periodicals and big city newspapers routinely published considered assessments of trend-setters in popular culture, fiction, television, theater and film. Some combined their pieces in book-length studies of the period that are still worth reading. Michael Arlen and Neil Postman wrote insightful analyses of news and entertainment television. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were among many popular reviewers producing novel assessments of films and the film industry. They were matched by music critics like Michael Kennedy, Dave Marsh, Gene Lees and Donal Hanahan, who provided appraisals of performers and performances. Their counterparts in the visual arts included writers like Robert Hughes, Walter Benjamin, and Jerry Saltz: all exploring the vagaries of talent and caché in that enigmatic world.

Among countless publications, readers poured over this criticism in the pages of The Dial, The New Yorker, Gramophone, Paris Review, Harpers, The Atlantic, New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone. And no self-respecting daily newspaper considered itself complete without its own music and film critics. Bigger city papers also added performance reviews of dance, along with the assessments from urbanists of a city’s newest additions to its skyline.

Even beyond obvious and daily samples of book and theater reviews in many Twentieth Century news outlets, there was an entire world of appreciators with appetites for reconsidering the rivers of culture that came from distant headwaters. For example, Gramophone was founded in 1923 by the Scottish author Compton Mackenzie, who understood that there was an appetite for essays about the composers and performers captured in the new electrical recordings of the time. He proved the unlikely proposition that many wanted to read about music almost as much as they wanted to hear it.

Criticism has Diminished as a Cultural Mainstay

                       Susan Sontag

With video and digital media still mostly in the future, Americans in the first half of the century, had the time and the will to know the backstories of the cultural products of the day. Indeed, some writers like Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Janet Malcom became intellectual thought leaders. They helped to explain what artistic mastery should look like. And they had the counterparts in a range of academic thinkers—T.W. Adorno, David Riesman, Marshall McLuhan and Kenneth Burke, for example—whose deeper cultural probes would soak into the fabric of the nation’s undergraduate curriculum. Sampling the output of so many professional appreciators would keep liberal arts students preoccupied for years, and sometimes forever.

        Toland Image From Scene from Citizen Kane

To be sure, our interest in the understandings the nation’s cultural output has not vanished. But criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products. I use the word “simulations” because the impulse to be a content producer often bypasses the intellectual labor that comes in value-added art. So many today proceed without a grounding in the canons of a particular form: its histories, possibilities, and innovators. I suspect the desire to be an immediate practitioner in a realm that is barely understood is usually fed by the promise of fame. The result, as my colleagues in film sometimes lament, is that students want to be producers of video stories before the have considered the durable conventions of narrative: for example, the norms of a written screenplay, or how this first written map is converted into the visual “language” and grammar of film. To cite a specific case, it would be useful for a young filmmaker to know how cinematographer Greg Toland used light and shadow to create the unmistakable visual palette of Citizen Kane (1941), or how Steven Spielberg and John Williams exploited the tricky business of musical underscoring to leave audiences suitably terrified by Jaws (1975).

In our schools and colleges, the equipment to make art is frequently made available to students who have only rudimentary understandings of how they might be used. The youthful conceit that progress is made by setting aside what has come before is mostly an excuse to avoid the work of contemplation that creates competence and a lasting passion for an art form.