AI Writes: Talk to Transformer
by Bob Schwartz
Artificial Intelligence (AI) won’t replace writers. No machine can ride the emotional roller coaster that writing can be, and what computer could consume the inappropriate volume of coffee (or alcohol) it takes sometimes to string words together? I mean, where would you pour it?
Even the most advanced chatbots can’t hold a decent conversation, but AI systems are definitely getting better at generating the written word. A new web app provides ample proof, letting anyone enter a text prompt to which AI software will automatically respond.
Enter the start of a made-up news article, and it’ll finish it for you. Ask it a question (by formatting your input like this: “Q: What should I do today?”), and it’ll happily respond.
The site is called TalkToTransformer.com, and it’s the creation of Canadian engineer Adam King. King made the site, but the underlying technology comes from research lab OpenAI. Earlier this year, OpenAI unveiled its new AI language system, GPT-2, and TalkToTransformer is a slimmed-down, accessible version of that same technology, which has been made accessible only to select scientists and journalists in the past. (The name “transformer” refers to the type of neural network used by GPT-2 and other systems.)
If you want to learn about AI language generation, there’s no better way to understand its huge potential and serious limitations than by playing around with TalkToTransformer.
On the plus side, the model is incredibly flexible. It’s able to recognize a huge variety of inputs, from news articles and stories to song lyrics, poems, recipes, code, and HTML. It can even identify familiar characters from franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
At the same time, you’ll soon see that, at a fundamental level, the system doesn’t understand language or the world at large. The text it generates has surface-level coherence but no long-term structure. When it writes stories, for example, characters appear and disappear at random, with no consistency in their needs or actions. When it generates dialogue, conversations drift aimlessly from topic to topic. If it gets more than a few responses, it seems like good luck, not skill.
Still, as The Verge explained in our original coverage of GPT-2, this system is hugely impressive. Remember: this is a single algorithm that has learned to generate text by studying a huge dataset scraped from the web and other sources. It learned by looking for patterns in this information, and the result is a surprisingly multitalented system.
It may not be hard to find gaps in GPT-2’s knowledge, but it’s impossible to know whether you’ve explored the limits of what it can do.
Putting Talk to Transformer to the test, I prompted it with some of the most famous opening lines from classic novels (shown in bold). Note that for the sake of space, I have not included the actual opening paragraphs for comparison, author v. machine. If you’re not familiar with the real thing, you can easily look it up.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. But no one would speak of him as a beggar. He has nothing that may entitle him to such a wife; and therefore it lies open to him, as to a man of ill estate, and who does not have any means, that he might marry his daughter, to whom his fortune might furnish a dowry—a woman who bore his child. So that, in other respects, the poor man is so fortunate in life as almost to be the chief benefactor of his country, without the necessity of making a comparison of his wealth with his want of property. But he has no reason to make such an comparison. For without it his property may grow to become much greater than the property of the richest in the family, whom it is not fit to receive any assistance from. So that no one will be willing, by any means, to enter into a marriage-contract with any one who is rich enough to support him. But if the property of any one whom he is bound to support can be reduced to…
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
It is possible that the old prophets who would write in our days, the last of them we are not able to remember, would go mad during the coming of the Age of Light, but only among us, for now all is still the same to them.
The world, or at least that part of the world, which is not dominated by the forces of light and sound, becomes a desert of blind blindness, which has its origin in the lack of knowledge in the human brain. The old prophets said that all of us who have knowledge of God must, sooner or later, fall into an abject state of ignorance about the reality of Things. However, those who are the more ignorant, have never the slightest fear of the Age of Light, as there is…
James Joyce, Ulysses:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. He had a large brown dog with blue eyes in his mouth, about twelve feet long.
“We are in the presence of the gods,” he said with a tone like a dog barking. As I walked inside, I glanced through the mirror which had the words “THE GODS” stamped upon it . I recognized the face that stood behind the mirror and the voice of the god. The god, whose name was Ouroboros, the One who is above and beyond, asked him if it was his name. The dwarf replied that his name was “Buck”. The god asked Buck Mulligan how he liked to be called. Buck answered, “Well, in order to be called what we are, we must be named. I like it when you call me that way.” The god had been talking about the god with his eyes shining and he felt something in his chest.
“I need a shave,” said Buck,…
Albert Camus, The Stranger:
Mother died today. I’m sure she has a daughter too. I’ve been trying to get her to talk to me for years. I tried to give her a name, to remind her what her life was worth, to show a smile to tell her I love her and that she is special. But, I couldn’t talk to her much. She just was. I’m not sure even if I could talk to her on the phone that would be enough to help her out. Not a real good idea because, the moment she does meet someone, she will feel abandoned and so will almost any adult. The last time I talked to her was before she passed away. She was sick. I saw her one last time in one of her many hospitals in the hospital. She didn’t talk very often. She seemed okay, at least when I had her. She told me she was sorry she didn’t talk to me sooner. I asked her about her kids, she said she was not home for the kids…
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. If the hobbit was happy, it was also easy to look upon him. Why, that hobbit could do whatever he liked, and so he came often and went noisily and noisily of one to another to meet his needs, but the poor hobbit felt nothing and never had anything to feel for. How can a hobbit feel for someone else? It is hard for him to have the confidence that someone else would feel for him.
Then when the hobbit is very tired and doesn’t know what to do, how he feels for somebody is also not easy to come in contact with him if he is far from civilization; there is so little contact with a non-European. The one time the hobbit fell very sick he looked back in vain for all his friends and nobody would tell…