May 28

Not quite as slick as Commander Data

If you ever watched any of the “Next Generation” incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, you may remember that Data was an amazingly sophisticated  android who was always yearning to feel human emotions. Occasionally, he would be put in a situation where he would try really hard to tell jokes, be a parent, or have a girlfriend, and his struggles to understand the motions he was going through–and then interpret the reactions of actual humans–were by turns funny, interesting, and touching.

Well, AI isn’t quite there yet, you may be relieved (or disappointed) to discover. Research scientist Janelle Shane has a neural network and is doing what anyone would do with a neural network: encouraging it to generate superhero names and pickup lines.

The superhero names are wildly entertaining. Who wouldn’t want to see a Justice League made up of Mister Man, Sapgirl, and Red Fart? Supperman must have the power to revitalize leftovers, Superbore humanely puts his opponents to sleep, and Green Hooter II … must have an origin story that explains what happened to Green Hooter I. I think I’m most curious, though, about the superhero named Nana. I imagine her weapons are knitting needles and her superpower is disapproval.

The pickup lines are a more complicated assignment, though, and the results demonstrate how complicated English grammar is (some sound like the efforts of a nonnative learner or poor translator), and how delicate the task of using idiom and figurative language can be.

After a great deal of hard work programming in a vast library of real human pickup lines (“much more painful than I had expected,” and I hear that), Shane sat back and let the neural net come up with its own. Some are just nonsensical, but some are weirdly endearing:

Are you a candle? Because you’re so hot of the looks with you.

And my favorite, which I may have to use someday:

You look like a thing and I love you.

It’s going to be a long time before robots put writers, poets, comedians, or lounge lizards out of work.

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