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Do electric ducks talk about web development?

Published on 2021-07-04 code philosophy discussion

Apparently you can now talk to a GPT-3 model that has been trained to mimic Elon Musk. Or Shakespeare or Aristotle or whoever else sounds impressive.

My general approach to AI is relaxed. Yes, it will probably change everything, in ways that are inconceivable before and self-evident after. So far I avoid most AI related tech. But I am not oblivious enough to believe it won’t have an impact on me at all.

Back to the topic: Many AI assistants so far were focussed on giving concise and factually accurate answers (siri, alexa, …). This project seems to be very different: It is more conversational in a human sense, but will probably make many factual errors.1

There is so much history to this. I am not an expert on social history, but I guess it is safe to say that people have become more individualistic as the centuries went by. This has lead to big personal freedom, but also loneliness. The archetype of the modern human is the nerd, a person who has much enthusiasm about a specific topic, but no one to talk to.

Many people today fulfil that desire by talking to a therapist. I know people who are convinced that everyone should do therapy. But I am not sure that would scale.

One of the earliest examples of AI was incidentally in that area: ELIZA was a simplistic program that picks up what you write and asks related questions. Its author, Joseph Weizenbaum, was shocked by the unexpectedly positive reaction by users and later became a prominent critic of AI in general.

So this is where we are: The real Elon Musk will not listen to my ramblings about web development. Neither will my friends. But a payed therapists will, and now GPT-3 Elon will, too.

Don’t get me wrong. My friends are great and there are lots of things we can talk about. But there are some topics close to my heart that they are just not interested in. They have their own lives to worry about. It would be great to have someone to talk to about those topics without the guilty feeling of boring them to death.

Besides therapists and AI there is a third group of “people” you can talk to: rubber ducks. The practice of rubber duck debugging sounds silly, but its effectiveness borders on absurdity. Apparently talking to someone, anyone, helps to structure ideas and find answers that were out of reach before.

But modern AI can do more than ELIZA or the humble rubber duck: Instead of just mirroring back your own thoughts it can give impulses and provide novel perspectives. I would not go as far as to suggest that it can replace therapy, but it feels like it could fill a niche somewhere between rubber ducks, therapists, and actual friends.

What societal impact would that have in the long term? Maybe it will remove even more incentives to meet other people, pushing us ever further into isolation. Or it will decrease the pressure from communication with humans, allowing us to be kinder and more open in those discussions. We will have to find out.

I want to close with a quote that is about a slightly different topic, but manages to capture the mood anyway:

Internet links small groups, helping dissolve big groups; good, bad? But a bit sad. – https://www.gwern.net/The-Melancholy-of-Subculture-Society


  1. This feels a lot like the distinction between Empiricism and Rationalism.↩︎