the voice of Douglas Adams

There is an unnerving number of dead people in my contacts file. One of them is Douglas Adams, who I knew to get quotes from; attached to the phone number at his software company is a note of what he said when plugging some game on 23rd January 1998:

Working on it with a writer named Neil Richardson and w Michael Bywater. We have about 6 movie scripts’ worth of dialogue now: say 16 hours’ worth of speech. But we could go on till there were 32. There is an iterative process: we write a rudimentary script based on what people might put in, and miss 99 out of 100 reactions. So we record them playing it and start again. This iterative process starts to work. There are still times when you thing, oh God, STUPID machine, why didn’t you think of that? But there are other moments when it seems spooky. The machine puts together stuff that we had forgotten about, from far distant parts of the game. Of course, we don’t have real intelligence cracked – it’s a bit like Zeno’s paradox: we get closer and closer to the actual business of language, without ever reaching it. Like sawing someone in half: considered as a medical problem, it is very very difficult indeed. But if you just want to convince a large audience that you have sawn a lady in half in a cabinet – that’s easy.
I say that we really want to be fooled, and that is the secret of persuading people that we have found artificial intelligence. Even very stupid bots can appear intelligent if they are acting in accord with our preconceptions.
Yes: you just try to get a fucking actor to understand anything, he says.

Yoz Grahame, who worked on the game, says in comments that it ws Neil Richards and the Starship Titanic is still going. Amended accordingly. These were contemp notes, typed as we talked.

This entry was posted in Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to the voice of Douglas Adams

  1. el Patron says:

    Ah. I will mark it up. I liked the Wired piece on your blog. I did something rather more po-faced for the Guardian on the same subject.

  2. Yoz says:

    The game in question was Starship Titanic and Douglas named the conversation engine “Spookitalk” because of its spooky matching abilities. Though most of the kudos goes to TDV’s Jason Williams and his work with Virtus’s “Velocitext” engine, we found that – in order to deal with the thousands of different things a user might say – there’s not much substitute for weeks and weeks of playtesting, during which Jason discovered the thousands of different things the users were actually saying and customised the conversation engine accordingly.

    Oh, and it’s Neil Richards.

    (My own role: working on the various web sites and communities for the game, one of which – – is still very active today)

  3. Rupert says:

    Bluetooth is fun, and may be a teensy glimpse into our bright new RFID future. You’d think that a conference filled with IT suits would be thick with the stuff, but no. The Circle line is normally good for one or two respondees, but the motherlode for me was a recording of The Now Show at the Drill Hall. Waiting in the queue, I did a quick scan and my poor old phone choked on the thunderous response.


  4. Yoz says:

    Sorry, only just saw your response – thanks for that!

Comments are closed.