Friday, December 19, 2008

Loony Oboists and Hedge-Studded Turnpikes

At all events my own essays and dissertations about love
and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be
known and understood by all of you who read this and
talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends
or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject
of this essay. We will commence with a question:
does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably
hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is
a question: does an electron love a proton,
or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does
a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be
precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting
and critical response to this question is: no! He
is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony
and crazy about her. That is not the love of
steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and
neutron. This dissertation will show that the
love of a man and a woman is not the love of
steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me
and fascinating to you but it is painful to
Bill and Diane. That is love!


Racter, by the way, is a computer program. It composed the very first book ever written by a computer, titled The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed and published in 1984. This book consists of snippets of prose interspersed with poetry and a strange short story about a dysfunctional group of friends sitting down for a dinner of lamb chops. Altogether, it is a strange and fascinating work. The limericks are repetitive, nonsensical, and unimpressive, but some of the other passages border on something oddly elegant.

A hot and torrid bloom which
Fans wise flames and begs to be
Redeemed by forces black and strong
Will now oppose my naked will
And force me into regions of despair.

Some of Racter's revelations could be called profound....if only they had been written by a human being. For how can a machine, which is but the product of human genius and labor, compose a creative work? Who is the author of The Policeman's Beard: the computer, or the programmer? I was impressed with some of the language in the book--it gave me some real points to ponder. How could a "silicon and epoxy energy enlightened by line current," as Racter describes itself, compose something better than I could, when I am a living, breathing, thinking person? This thought is both humbling and somewhat threatening.

Artificial intelligence is a very interesting subject. Computers can converse in English as elaborately and perfectly as any native. If you've got a little time to kill, try out a conversation with A.L.I.C.E. the chatbot.

The complete text of Racter's book can be found here. I highly recommend reading it some boring afternoon. Pictured at the top of this post is a painting generated by another computer program, called AARON.

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