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A realistic look at AI in science fiction

Video: Author Robin Sloan tells us how machine learning crept into his novels.

Robin Sloan writes about artificial intelligence in his latest novel, Sourdough, but he has also been writing with help from AI, too. In the latest episode of Ars Technica Live, filmed before actual humans at Oakland bar Eli's Mile High Club, I talked to Sloan about his work.

We started out by discussing how Sloan does his research, because Sourdough has some of the most accurate representations of robots you'll find in a work of fiction. But it also has impeccably researched descriptions of how to make sourdough bread, which is a pretty interesting scientific process in itself. Sloan said he talked to several roboticist friends about his main character, who works as a software developer for robot arms. But he also incorporated his personal knowledge of San Francisco startup culture, as well as sourdough cultures. He has made sourdough bread himself, though he admitted it wasn't particularly successful. Cooking has become a form of science, Sloan said, and developments in biotech have taken food into the laboratory.

One of the big topics of our conversation, as well as the Q/A afterward, was Sloan's foray into building a simple machine-learning algorithm that can complete a sentence. He fed the algorithm on a corpus of text harvested from Galaxy and If magazines, two popular SF periodicals in the 1950s and '60s. The full texts of both are available for free on the Internet Archive. Then he added his algorithm to a text editor, so you can type in half a sentence, and it will supply the rest. Results, he said, were whimsical and literary enough that he decided to keep playing with it. (You can play with it yourself here.)

Though Sloan isn't going to use this particular algorithm for any future novels, he said he's developing another one. He's feeding it on a wide range of texts, including legal documents, and he's trying to incorporate its words into his next writing project. I thought that was a particularly interesting approach, because human writers are themselves consumers of diverse reading material. If you want your AI to write like a human being, the best training corpus might involve sampling from many sources, ranging from news and fiction to tweets and medical textbooks.

We concluded our conversation by talking about how Sloan likes to combine magic and science in his work. He pondered whether there was something about the San Francisco Bay Area setting for both his novels that lends itself well to what writer Fritz Leiber called "megapolisomancy," or city magic. Of course, if San Francisco did have a magical system, it would involve technology and science at its core.

It was a delightful evening, and you can hear everything we talked about in the video embedded above.

Yes! There is a transcript of this video! Read it here.

Interested in coming to our next Ars Live event? On September 12, I'll be joined by Cyrus Farivar in a conversation with Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission attorney Raymundo Jacquez III. Oakland is one of the only cities in the country with a privacy commission, and it reviews all electronic surveillance devices used by law enforcement. You can learn more and RSVP for the event at Eventbrite.

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