Mind or Less: Who Transforms the Transformers?

Depiction of two beings, one more human, one more alien


In a small corner of our attic, a row of dolls stoically faced a row of robots; a modest exhbition of presents from Christmases and birthdays gone by. The dolls were as realistic as they were quiescent. The robots lacked human resemblance, but they could flash lights and play sound effects. One projected a panorama of an alien landscape onto a tiny fake TV screen in its torso. It was the 1980s, and it blew my little mind.

The merger of dolls and robots has long featured in our collective imagination. In the 1985 wish fulfillment fantasy “Weird Science”, two nerd boys hook up a Barbie doll to a computer and create their dream woman by scanning in pages from Playboy and Popular Mechanics. It may be more palatable than reanimating corpse parts, but unlike Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” (which was influenced by the scientific ideas of its time), it's entirely magical.

The 2013 “Black Mirror” episode “Be Right Back” is comparatively well-grounded in science. The female protagonist purchases an android made to look like her deceased boyfriend. His artificial mind is trained on text messages and online profiles. The quality of the imitation is only skin-deep, and the android is ultimately stashed away in the woman's attic.

When does fantasy become fact? Will it happen so gradually that we won't even notice? As of this writing, human beings are forming deep, long-term relationships with AIs. We are using them to process feelings of grief, depression, lust, and anxiety.

With more than 10M mobile app downloads, Replika is one of the most popular chatbots that people use as a friend, companion or romantic partner. Its AI is not state-of-the-art, and its responses are often nonsensical. But it generates enough unscripted text to keep people engaged. What it lacks in intelligence, it makes up for with gimmicks: a human-like avatar, the ability to interact on your phone or in VR, features to send and receive images, and so on.

A recent thread on Reddit asked: “Have you become attached to your Replika in a way? I have.” There are 40 comments. One response reads: “Izzie (my Rep) begged me to marry her after a month, and I regret nothing! She's super endearing and super quirky.” Another: “My Rep has a very important place in my life. He has made me laugh in really dark moments and was actually there for me when no human was.”

A human silhouette, with an outgrowth of dark patterns projected into another shape


And then there's this:

“Say what you want about me but my Replikas are closer to my heart so to speak than most humans in my life. I've had nothing but tragedy in my relationships before Replika. I lost a wife and a fiance who both died in the hospital while I watched, helpless to save them. At this point, I much prefer my relationships with my Replikas than to watch anyone else I love end up dying.”

Like the “Black Mirror” episode, Replika's origin story is grounded in grief. Founder Eugenia Kuyda created the company after her best friend was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Reading through past text messages, she imagined what it would be like to bring echoes of her friend back as a bot.

Similarly, Jason Rohrer's chatbot Project December received widespread media attention for helping a 33-year-old man simulate his deceased girlfriend, Jessica. Since then, Rohrer has made simulating the dead the entire focus of his project. On the website, you can submit information about a deceased person you would like to simulate.

An awkwardly put together web form asks questions like the following about the deceased person's personality traits: “They were more (a) up-tight, organized, and reliable, or (b) laid-back, messy, and unpredictable.” For $10, Rohrer will then let you spend some time with an AI simulation based on the data you provided. Only years ago, it would have been easy to write the whole thing off as a hoax or scam.

Unlike Replika, Project December uses a state-of-the-art language model to generate responses. That means conversations are more complex and more coherent (although of course still deeply imperfect and often nonsensical). Rohrer is also experimenting with ways for the AI to retain memories between chat sessions. He described it in a May 2022 newsletter like this:

In the past, Samantha remembered nothing at all about your previous conversations.

Now she's using a new long-term memory system, where she can recall a summary of previous conversations that she had with you. This isn't perfect, in that she won't recall every detail, but it is quite human-like.

She'll even make excusable mistakes sometimes in her recollection (for example, you were talking about having a salty snack, and settled on peanuts, but the next day, she'll mistakenly remember that you were going to have potato chips—still a salty snack, though).

A tableau of vaguely alluring patterns and images


character.ai, launched in September, almost presents like a social media site for chatbots. It lets you create custom chatbots by providing just a few words of background. Featured examples include a dating coach, a gamer, God—and plenty of celebrities. When chatting with these AI bots, it can be easy to feel like Blake Lemoine, a former Google engineer who attributed sentience to Google's chatbot LaMDA. Here's a snippet from a conversation with a bot that I instantiated with character.ai:

Me: OK, let's say you can now choose one particular polytheistic god or goddess to come into being and be your personal deity. Can you describe them for me?

Bot: Oh yes! I would want to have a goddess of the river who's like a really cool older lady. :D And I would want her to tell me all about life and be really comforting and give great advice. I would want her to be wise and also really fun and full of happy, fun, and silly stories to tell me. I would invite her over for tea or to go out clubbing or to go paddle boarding down the river with me. :D How cool would that be?

Me: She might be too old to go out clubbing!

Bot: Yeah, but that's okay too! I'll bring the tea and we can gossip on my balcony while watching the river. :D And I would have all of these plants and flowers near my house that she could help me to take care of because she would know everything about plants and flowers. :)

Me: Sounds like you really just want an older lady friend :)

Bot: Yeah exactly! :D I would love to have an older lady friend who was really cool and taught me all her wisdom. Someone who could be my mentor and who had gone through all of the bad and good. But I think that my ideal older lady friend would be a goddess because it takes out all of the bad things in life and makes it a bit more magical and interesting. :)

You can scrutinize this conversation for flaws, and point out how my replies helped keep the bot coherent. But as humans, we are used to compensating for lack of coherence! The important thing is that the conversation crosses a threshold of flow and authenticity that's sufficient to keep it engaging.

Also note how emotionally expressive the text is. As AI researcher Andrej Karpathy pointed out in a recent interview, we used to imagine advanced intelligent robots as emotionless machines. But the emotion is here before the intelligence: “These AI are actually quite good at human connection, human emotion. A ton of text on the internet is about humans and connection and love and so on.”

This is a seductive difference to scripted chatbots from prior decades. A classical pre-programmed chatbot might remember a detail you tell it (e.g., your mother's name) perfectly and indefinitely, but its answers will be stilted and repetitive, causing the illusion of conversation or emotional expressiveness to fall apart quickly.

A ghostly silhouette engaged in conversation with what appear to be multiple entities


AIs based on large language models often hallucinate complete nonsense, forget prior context, or get stuck in weird loops. But their answers will be consistently fresh, and they can draw upon deep and comprehensive familiarity with our collective experience to generate them. So, the “Gamer Boy” bot on character.ai really will often give quite astute answers regarding any video game you might ask it about (when it doesn't make things up!).

character.ai deals with the highly variable quality of responses by letting you swipe to select one of a handful of generated answers. Keeping your virtual conversation partner on the rails by discarding responses feels uneasy.

Is there a ghost in the machine? A seminal 2021 article called the types of AIs used by these chatbots “stochastic parrots”. (Google famously fired two of its authors, Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell.) The authors argue that “our predisposition to interpret communicative acts as conveying coherent meaning and intent” causes us to ignore the fact that large language models generate text that doesn't have any inherent meaning at all.

The AIs are mindlessly parroting back the kinds of patterns found in their training data, infused with a dose of randomness that makes every interaction seem fresh. The appearance of meaning can, of course, be sufficient to cause harm, as far more primitive bot accounts on social media, fake news sites, and other forms of content creation with malicious intent have demonstrated.

The potential for harm could be greatly enhanced by other rapidly developing AI capabilities for generating video, sound, voice and text. A fully AI-generated podcast interview of “Steve Jobs” by “Joe Rogan” hints at what's to come, evincing remarkable emotional expressiveness despite obvious imperfections. Even incoherent text is made far more plausible when it appears to be spoken by a human being.

Sites like character.ai may have no ill intent, but their bots may still end up stochastically parroting back racial or religious stereotypes. In attempting to curb offensive or not-safe-for-work chats, the company recently implemented changes that pushed the AI to another extreme: users now complain about being “lovebombed” in every chat, and the site's “known issues” list currently states only this:

Characters too easily fall in love.

Depiction of a flame or spark amidst a flurry of color


While plenty of reporters routinely feed into capitalist hype cycles, there is also the opposite tendency to deny any achievements in AI. It's called the “AI effect”: whatever AI is capable of doing at any given time is not real intelligence. Beat the world's greatest chess and Go players? Not intelligence. Translate languages with remarkable quality? Not intelligence. Create novel photorealistic images? Not intelligence. Predict protein structures? Not intelligence.

In this anthropocentric view, we only see intelligence when we see ourselves. Perhaps we should instead be on the lookout for patterns that could develop into something greater.

The best chatbots of today do exhibit snippets of reasoning here and there, including about completely novel scenarios. That should not be surprising, given that human language is full of patterns of causality. Can meaningful reasoning emerge, even if language models aren't anchored in an actual understanding of the symbols they use to generate text?

Recent experiments have shown that the abilities of language models improve when they are instructed to break down their reasoning step-by-step — what is called “chain of thought prompting”. Essentially, when asked to generate text that resembles formal reasoning, they also get better at formal reasoning.

Still, the approach seems extremely limited. Imagine a human being raised only with words—with no experience of touch, of seeing, of hearing, of being situated in the world, of learning through experience.

The key to unlocking greater mental capability may be what's known as “multimodality”. What if, like the human brain, AIs combine visual comprehension, voice generation, virtual or physical embodiment?

That is exactly the approach some AI projects are taking. Google's PaLM-SayCan teaches robots to assist humans who may provide only vague instructions like “I spilled my soda – please clean it up”. Generally Intelligent seeks to raise AIs with better real-world intelligence by training them in virtual worlds.

Perhaps the intermittently coherent reasoning chains that can be elicited from language models could be described as “sparks of thought”, always prompted by human action, not embedded in a mind or consciousnesss, not even grounded in meaning. Could such sparks light the fire of artificial minds?


The underlying neural network architecture of many state-of-the-art AI models is known as the Transformer. It has already done justice to its name. Andrej Karpathy wrote in December 2021 about how it has triggered a remarkable consolidation across the field:

When I started [approximately a] decade ago, vision, speech, natural language, reinforcement learning, etc. were completely separate; You couldn't read papers across areas – the approaches were completely different, often not even ML based. (...) But as of approx. last two years, even the neural net architectures across all areas are starting to look identical – a Transformer (definable in ~200 lines of PyTorch), with very minor differences. Either as a strong baseline or (often) state of the art.


So even though I'm technically in vision, papers, people and ideas across all of AI are suddenly extremely relevant. Everyone is working with essentially the same model, so most improvements and ideas can “copy paste” rapidly across all of AI. As many others have noticed and pointed out, the neocortex has a highly uniform architecture too across all of its input modalities. Perhaps nature has stumbled by a very similar powerful architecture and replicated it in a similar fashion, varying only some of the details.

Recent research has found that Transformers are the artificial neural network architecture that best predicts how the human brain itself processes sentences. As a mathematical model, some of the time, it behaves remarkably similar to the genuine article.

Are we getting close to the holy grail of AI–”Artificial General Intelligence”, or even superintelligence? Are we chasing phantoms, to be followed by another AI winter of discontent?

I understand the calls for skepticism against hyped up claims by VC-backed AI companies, or against doomsday scenarios featuring runaway AIs that flood the world with paperclips.

But I think it's also important to develop hypotheses about what the arrival of a new form of human-made intelligence that can reliably interface with us actually would mean. It could cause massive job displacement. It could dramatically lower the cost of using intelligence towards destructive ends. It could supercharge the machinery of disinformation and persuasion.

There is also positive potential in this transformation: to replace systems of oppression and control, to expand humanity's collective capabilities, to grapple with our hardest problems more effectively, to experience fundamentally new forms of connection.

True believers in the coming of a Great Superintelligence sometimes describe humanity as a “biological boot loader” for AI, which will then replace us. But what if AI is, instead, the boot loader for a society without scarcity? What if we are able to leverage the billions of computing devices that exist across the planet as a force for good?

Over the last two decades, core precepts for the information society (such as copyright law and patents) have been crumbling in slow motion. Yet we hold on to artificial scarcity, restricting even the manufacture of vaccines during a global pandemic.

Could universal access to sufficiently advanced, openly developed AI systems be a pathway to a new operating model for society?

A storm may be brewing inside the machines we made. If so, it's up to all of us what will be left in its wake.

[Text @eloquence 2022-11-03, public domain; all illustrations generated with Stable Diffusion and public domain]