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A.I. in Smalltalk
A.I. in Smalltalk 2006©Thórisson
In most conversations, people tend not to ask questions about what I'm doing beyond that of the name, which is usually followed by a nod and a change of subject. When it comes to computers, and especially artificial intelligence — it seems generally not be considered good conversation material. The process is depicted in figure 1. In the second frame, note the totally blank expression on the friendly persons face while he nods, in comparison to my intense, excited smile of joy at the prospect of an interesting conversion about work.

Governed by a concern for my own health, I've decided not even to contemplate the possibility of someone finding science uninteresting; so the closest logical reason is that many think they wouldn't understand it. I'd already written a hefty overview explaining what I do and why I do it, when I realized that the text was a bit on heavier side for a weblog, and that upon reading half of it, most people would probably act as depicted in frame 3 of figure 1. Instead, I made this entry a Normality Certified™ account of my experiences of A.I. in smalltalk1.

Now, first, let me point out that of course A.I. isn't smalltalk material — because it generally requires more than a "small talk" to even reach an agreement on how to define the words being used in the conversation (e.g. defining "intelligence"). In this aspect, small-talk is closely related to small-thought — so my frustration doesn't really derive from no-one wanting to talk about A.I. any more than the fact that people generally don't like thinking.


Overall, I've heard many — but here are selected responses that I frequently receive when my work is mentioned.

"So I'm going to have to kill you before you create
the robots that take over the world?"

Regular reply from those familiar with certain movies. Usually stated in a sarcastic tone, sometimes implying that A.I. belongs in fairytales (robotales?), with a subtle undertone of fear that it won't. There are many different versions of this response, but they all mean the same thing with their references to Terminator and the Hollywood idiosyncrasy.

"Have you created anything really intelligent?"

An unfortunate thing about this question is that there is no good answer to it if you're keeping things smalltalky, except just saying "Yes" if you think you have, or "No" if you haven't. Any attempt at intelligent answers like "Well, that depends on how you define intelligence" will often cause a smalltalker to think you really haven't, but that you're trying to find a way to make it seem like you have.

Note also the emphasis on "really" — the word "artificial" seems to be generally interpreted as a synonym to "fake". Fortunately, comparing artificial intelligence to artificial fabric works very well, as most people do realize that artificial fabrics are real.

"Oh, so ... computers?"

Chances are that people of the analog generations use this reply.


Elderly relatives' reply. Either (a) the person wants you to explain it, then starts talking about the weather, or (b) she doesn't, and then starts talking about the weather. Both events a and b are preceded by the person realizing the association of A.I. with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the end, I'm generally ok with any response I get. We're all different, and I respect peoples choices and interests. But I have one more tale to tell in this context. The other day insomnia struck again — I had little choice but to put on a DVD from our Friends collection. It was then when I had a very disconcerting reminder of what the majority of people think of science.

So in this scene, characters Ross (David Schwimmer) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) were "hanging out" when Ross mentions "I just finished this fascinating book. By the year 2030, there'll be computers that can carry out the same amount of functions as an actual human brain. So theoretically you could download your thoughts and memories into this computer and live forever as a machine".

But then the punchline came: Chandler pretended to doze off with the appropriate satirical snoring sound, followed by that horrible studio-laughter. Now, I like Friends, and I like Chandler, but I didn't laugh this time — I was just plain bummed that Ross couldn't talk more about this book!

Let us examine what this made me think at the time:

(1) Normal people's ideas of interesting conversations do not involve science, and usually not events further away than a week (unless it's a concert).
(2) I'm not a Normality Certified™ individual

In point 1, I'm not referring to the conversation of the fictional characters Chandler and Ross. I'm talking about the very-real people that watch the show and probably rolled around on their nacho-covered floor laughing their asses off over the absurd notion of the mention of something "so obnoxiously boring" — which was exactly what the very-real scriptwriters knew, and were planning on happening.

See definition on Normality Certified™ below for reference on Point nr. 2. But the feeling I got watching the scene was both eerie and relieving. I'll leave it up to the respected reader to hypothesize why.

So, in conclusion — draw your own conclusions, and find the sarcastic hidden message in this article2.

1. That's generally called being codependent, but writing a public weblog no-one wants to read kind of makes it being public pointless.
1b. Normality Certified™ means that the contents of the product or products do not break the borders of normal, although the Institute of Norm makes no guarantees that your sense of normal is normal enough to perceive the contents as normal.
2. Yes. There really is a hidden message. Hint: It's spread over the whole article.

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