Tag Archives: context

Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning

  1. Lithium

I’m old enough to remember when video games were comparatively simple things. For example, I remember the side-scrolling video game adaptation of Robocop (1988). Relatively short, Robocop had you shooting and jumping your way from one side of the world to another. Once you got to the end of one world, you moved to another, and then another… and then the worlds started repeating themselves in slightly different colours. These games were simple to understand: you immediately knew what you were expected to do and what constituted victory. Nearly twenty-five years on, video game technology has advanced to the point where games are beginning to acquire the complex ambiguity of the real world — and with this complexity comes difficulty. Continue reading Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning

The in-jokes from way out

Today’s XKCD may not be one of the funniest ever, but as is often the way, it’s the not-so-funny ones that tend to get me thinking:

Inside joke - XKCD

And as always, it’s the mouseover text that gets to the real point:

I’ve looked through a few annotated versions of classic books, and it’s shocking how much of what’s in there is basically pop-culture references totally lost on us now.

Now, that’s a pretty ubiquitous aspect of popular culture he’s on about, but I think we can suggest that sf will suffer more strongly than regular mimetic novels from this problem when appraised by the readers of the future. Making sense of, say, Jane Austen’s work demands an understanding of the sociopolitical milieu in which it was written, but imagine trying to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl a century from now (assuming, of course, that there’s still someone capable of reading it at that point). To fully grok the story and its commentary, the reader would need to understand not just the historical situation of the Noughties, but also the way the Noughties looked at the future, and (to a perhaps lesser extent) the way in which a work of sf tends to engage in a dialogue with its antecedents and contemporaries.

Of course, that’s partly true of almost any cultural sub-genre. And this here blog will read rather strangely in a century’s time, but (again assuming it’s still around to read, stuffed into a corner of a diamondite teracube in 2110’s equivalent of the Wayback Machine) there’d at least be the links there for context. But that assumes that the links aren’t dead either, of course… and that the reader would be bothered about checking that context. Hmmm. I seem to have just argued my way out of my own hypothesis; maybe Noughties sf in retrospect won’t look any weirder than any of its contemporary media. In fact, thinking about the music videos I’ve seen recently, it might get off quite lightly…

Even so, I quite fancy the job of knocking up hypertext Cliff’s Study Notes-style annotated versions of modern sf novels for the benefit of the cultural anthropologists of the near future… would anyone like to pay me to do that, please?

Related: Douglas Coupland pops in to the New York Times to coin some much-needed neologisms for the near future. I wonder if he has one for marginal book critics who portray popular post-modern authors as self-indulgent cynics?

Contextual Turing Tests

The thing with the Turing Test is that it’s such a loose experiment; it becomes (arguably) much easier to pass if the intelligence being tested is tuned for the context in which the test is being performed, and to the human respondent.

Here’s a QED via web-culture cynic and curmudgeon Nick Carr, who points out that Ben Weber has taken a leaf from ELIZA’s playbook and created a chatbot for the Starcraft online games:

Once every thirty seconds, EISBot randomly selects a message from a pool of 75 messages and sends it to the console. The results can be quite convincing:

  • EISBot: Whats up with Savior recently?
  • EISBot: Tasteless is my homeboy
  • EISBot: It says I need more pylons, what a pylon?
  • EISBot: What to ally victory?
  • Player: damn you
  • Player: im not stupid
  • EISBot: Wanna join my clan
  • Player: dunno
  • Player: im not that great
  • Player: lol
  • EISBot: So, this game is pretty much over
  • Player: yeah
  • Player: lol
  • Player: im playing off race
  • Player: lol
  • EISBot: Quit wasting time, come kill me
  • EISBot: What kind of hardware are you using? I’m on a 486 with 16M ram, pure luxory!!!
  • Player: i dunno

Says Carr, from beneath a grubby flatcap, with a wet-eyed grayhound curled up at his feet:

Note that the bot’s one major flaw is that its command of the English language, particularly the use of punctuation marks, is much too sophisticated in comparison with that of the human. The sure way to distinguish the computer’s messages from the human’s is to recognize that the computer has a rather sentimental attachment to the apostrophe and the comma.

I take this as another indication that I am correct in my suspicion that when computers finally pass the Turing test it won’t be because computers have become smarter; it will be because humans have become dumber.

Oh, how right you are, Mister Carr. Why, until maybe forty years ago when those pesky computers came on the scene, young people were almost universally literate, and spoke in long erudite sentences when talking with their peers on matters of mutual interest! How the mighty have fallen…

… although, with that said, three cats and a catnip-dusted keyboard would probably be enough to pass the Turing Test if it were conducted in a YouTube comment thread. YMMV.