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Echoes in cyberspace: AI and the quest for meaning

Speed read
  • Service-oriented AI chatbots diagnose illness and offer financial advice
  • AI tech & streaming video allow a transgender activist to speak directly with a global audience
  • Future of AI may lead to replicating lost loved ones

The idea of intelligent machines stretches back as far as the ancient Greek myth of Hephaestus, the blacksmith god who created Talos, a man made of bronze, to be the warder of Crete.

Nearly a thousand years later, the inventor and engineer Ismail Al-Jazari created the first programmable humanoid automata: A band of water-powered musicians that entertained guests at the Anatolian palace.

Leap forward another handful of centuries and artificial intelligence (AI) is taking new forms — like Bank of America's Erica, a financial advisor that uses predictive analytics to make recommendations to customers about paying off credit card balances and increasing their net worth.

Or Melody, a medical assistant created by Chinese web services company Baidu to address the predicted global shortage of 12.9 million medical professionals over the next 20 years.

<strong>Outspoken. </strong>Bhumika Shrestha is a Nepalese politician, transgender activist, and the subject of an interactive China Daily Asia Red Letter project. Courtesy Marc Lajoie.

Useful, certainly, but weren't we promised more? What about AIs that think and feel just as humans do? Lifelike creations that add richness and complexity to the human experience? Perhaps they are not so far away. 

Personal computing

Bhumika Shrestha is a transgender rights activist from the remote mountain nation of Nepal. But people from all over the world can ask her questions about her life and experiences thanks to an interactive AI interview.

"Bhumika is a person with a compelling individual life story, but she's also an activist and a politician…so no matter what question you ask, there's going to be an interesting answer," says China Daily Asia journalist Marc Lajoie, creator of Bhumika's online representative.

Lajoie's project tells Bhumika's story in a new way — a way that removes the filter of the journalist's own opinions, background, and worldview. A way that allows Bhumika to speak directly with interested users worldwide through a combination of technologies, such as IBM's Watson, adaptive streaming technology, and Amazon Web Services Lambda serverless compute service.

"The new technology enabled me to step back and put [Bhumika] center stage as opposed to applying my own framing. I think this is very exciting," says Lajoie.

<strong> Created in our image. </strong> Artificial intelligence (AI) emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans. Some activities computers with AI are designed for include: speech recognition, learning, planning, problem solving.

Lajoie traveled to Kathmandu and spent two days interviewing and filming Bhumika, resulting in six hours of interview footage which was then cut into small individual video segments. "Every question that Bhumika is asked makes a trip to IBM's Watson," says Lajoie, "which then comes back with a sequence of video clips and then combines them on the fly."

Users from China, the US, UK, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, Myanmar, and around the world are now spending time with Bhumika, interacting with her one-on-one and gaining new perspectives on a potentially sensitive subject. "I think what's really significant for me," says Lajoie, "is that new technologies open enormous new editorial possibilities, ways to tell stories that have never existed before."

The ghost in the machine

But new technology may also bring a fresh twist to one of humankind's oldest stories. Ever since Eurydice was bitten by a viper on her wedding day and her husband Orpheus traveled to the underworld in a futile attempt to retrieve her, humans have fantasized about the possibility of bringing a loved one back from the dead.

New technologies open enormous new editorial possibilities, ways to tell stories that have never existed before. ~Marc Lajoie.

When Eugenia Kuyda's close friend Roman Mazurenko died suddenly in 2015, she turned to technology to help her grieve. Re-reading the texts the two had exchanged throughout their long friendship, Kuyda realized that the words onscreen were now her only connection with her lost friend.

As co-founder of an AI startup, Kuyda was already using machine-learning to develop a bot for making restaurant reservations. Sensing the possibilities, Kuyda reached out to friends and family members, who contributed thousands of lines of text from their own years of conversations with Mazurenko. She then asked her developers to build a neural network that would mimic Mazurenko's speech patterns.

<strong>Through the looking glass.</strong> Artificial intelligence is helping humans address unanswerable questions. Eugenia Kuyda created an AI chatbot to commune with a departed friend. Courtesy Catsy Pline. <a href=

The resulting chatbot, while far from being a fully-rounded human being, was much more advanced than would have been possible even a few years ago. While a few friends reacted poorly to the chatbot, many, including Mazurenko's mother, embraced it. Analyzing conversations people had with the bot, Kuyda discovered that rather than replacing their lost friend, many used it therapeutically — to tell Mazurenko that they missed him, or even as a safe place to confide their current emotional problems. 

AI conjures a range of responses, some cautionary, others more enthusiastic. But if the Bhumika and Roman chatbots are any indication, AI is a means to satisfy a quintessentially human trait: Curiosity. AI helps us ask questions like: What is gender, and What is death?

AI may be leading us down an unknown path, but for now our intelligent machines are helping us see our own reflections more clearly and get a better look at who we really are.

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