reading in hindsight: The Man Who Had No Idea and chatbots

Barry Riordan is The Man Who Had No Idea, the protagonist of this 1978 short story by Thomas M. Disch. I’d first read the story a long time ago, in a collection of short stories acquired possibly in a second hand book shop of the sort I spent a lot of time and money in when I was significantly younger.

The idea of the story (no pun intended) stuck with me, even if the details and characters (such as Mad Madeline Swain the poet and Cinderella Johnson and her love of single shoes) had slipped through the cracks of memory. The basic idea is of a world in which people need a license to engage in conversation, and the story follows Barry in his almost unsuccessful quest for his.

The story came out mind amidst all of the recent news stories and commentary about the various chatbots and the difficulties they’re having with engaging in conversation. Admittedly, they don’t have Barry’s difficulty, of not knowing how to start a conversation, but rather difficulties of a very different sort.

As much as it’s something that we as humans engage in to a quite significant extent, I think that part of what we’re seeing through these news stories is that conversation is difficult. It requires pulling together, bringing together material from many places and doing real time reflective engagement through the process.

As we go through the short story, we watch Barry get better, to the point of generating a list of ideas for poor mad Madeline, a few of which become some of her better poems. In the same way, I’m sure we’ll witness the various chatbots getting better at chatting, through I do suspect it might take somewhat longer than it took Barry.

Those who know me moderately well will know that I sometimes express some degree of surprise and dismay that we are working ever so hard to equip the machine world with the tools it needs to pull a proper Skynet, or something much deeper and even more effective.

Robot dogs that can run and climb stairs. Facial recognition. Autonomous drones and other weapon systems. Voice recognition. Applying machine learning to develop toxins unlike any seen before. Gait recognition. And how, the conversational, so that even the Turing test won’t save us.

This is an old story and one told many times. This is the story of our capacity for developing tools before or without developing the wisdom needed to use the tools effectively. And so, might the future savior of humanity be the person who can’t be emulated by a smooth talking chatbots, as our last defense against our own creations?

~ by Jim Anderson on 19 February 2023.

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