Google’s Talk to Books: is the future of AI just a rambli…


I’m confuddled by Google’s new search feature. Talk to Books lets you ask whole questions, and pulls up a list of responses from 100,000 books in the Google Books database. In theory, this is incredible. We know the internet is a trash can of terrible people and misinformation – a kitten clutching a cat-print edition of Mein Kampf and aggressively selling you maxi dresses. But books! Books are portals to the greatest minds of recorded time. Why ask Jeeves when you can ask PG Wodehouse? Or Montaigne or Tolstoy or Woolf? They’re sure to know more than Reddit. And at times, the tool does seem strangely wise.

What’s the best way to live, I ask. “There is no one best way to live a life … There are penalties and compensations for being ‘good’ as well as for being ‘bad’,” I read. The advice comes from Robert K Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership: A Journey Into The Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Intriguing. I go a little more abstract. Who’s to blame, I wonder, and get an apt response from The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano: “To blame for what? His father asked, bewildered and slightly annoyed.” Touché. Will machines be kind to us? “We’ll probably never want to deal with machines that are too much like us,” says John McCarthy, from Formalising Common Sense.

But there’s also something disorienting in the experiment, in which answers are given to slightly different questions than the one I ask. Sometimes they’re dry and literal. “What is death?” generates passages from medical textbooks, but nothing more spiritual. “Do you know the way to San Jose?” pulls up a Los Angeles hiking guide, which advises me to take the 118 Freeway West, then park in a dirt lot to the right. But it doesn’t ask where I’m coming from. I’m not sure I know where it’s coming from either – frequently, it sounds quite mad. “How deep is your love?” yields Charles Darwin’s thoughts on the evolutionary reduction of crest in Silk fowl. (Probably good the Bee Gees cut that verse.)

Regular, full-fat Google became our default search engine by offering relevant results, in a clear interface. Talk to Books, on the other hand, is an experimental AI: it parses whole sentences to offer results based on an understanding of their possible meaning, rather than merely functional keywords. One question I ask leads to excerpts from John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, a Spanish-American short story anthology, and most thrilling of all, Advanced Well Completion Engineering. It’s not exactly useful, but maybe it’s not trying to be – according to the site’s front page, it’s a creativity tool, hence the unusual connections. Or perhaps, it’s just not very good.

It is refreshing, though, to step away from personalising algorithms and data tracking, which have given us a curiously claustrophobic internet, closer to a hall of mirrors. We’ve built a servile model of technology, and invariably imagine its flipside – the single-minded, aggressive robot uprising. Talk to Books presents an alternative vision of AI: the rambling pub bore. Semi-coherent, undeniably literate, accidentally profound. It suggests the future of the internet may be far stranger than predicted. What if a vast intelligence, that contains the sum of human thought patterns, and can predict exactly what we want, becomes bored of our questions? What if, knowing too much, it simply starts to lose its mind?





Barry and Paul Chuckle.



Barry and Paul Chuckle. Photograph: BBC Pictures Archives

Can the Chuckle Brothers survive our modern age?

The Chuckle Brothers are to return to our screens, after a 10-year absence. The main takeaway from the news is, surely: only 10 years? I’m used to internet memes reminding me things are depressingly older than I remember. We’re closer to the year 2036 than we are to Jennifer Lopez’s Grammy dress! Rupert Grint is turning 30! The sandwich you enjoyed this morning? You actually ate that on a Pict settlement in the Dark Ages! You’re going to die very soon LOL!

Even in my youth, I recall Chucklevision’s premise being flimsy. Two naive painter and decorators, who seemed to be 100, but were probably no older than Rupert Grint is now, displaying a formulaic incompetence at their job. (Sadly, as an adult, I can relate.)

What can this pair of mustachioed buffoons possibly offer a new Channel 5 audience, raised on Towie and Tinder and terrorism? We no longer live in innocent times. No one chuckles any more. Tinchy Stryder summed up Paul and Barry’s chances back in 2014, singing “Fuck all that me to you to me to you stuff” on his diss track, To Me To You (Bruv). And that was a voluntary collaboration with the pair, for charity.

I’m worried they’ll be eaten alive. Or succumb to dispiriting, channel-mandated storylines about leaking client nudes by accident, winding up on a reality dating show, or being caught up in riots, and throwing their ladder into the window of a Footlocker. Hang on, what am I talking about? These storylines sound amazing. I’ve changed my mind. Roll on the Chuckle Brothers reboot!

Kids v Olympic athletes: there’s only one winner

It’s been officially confirmed that children have greater energy levels, metabolic capacity and recovery rates than endurance athletes. The next step is obvious. A no-holds-barred Olympics, in which six-year-olds compete against sports professionals, who are encouraged to take all the steroids and stem cells they can handle, to level the field. Imagine the potential of cross-country tag, or a violent-reprisals version of Simon says, or test-match length ring a ring o’ roses, played to the point of collapse. Show me one exhausted parent who doesn’t think this is at least worth a try.

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