Stochastic Corvids (not parrots!): Far-future Uplifted Crows as commentary on ChatGPT / GPT-n

Over the holidays I’ve been really enjoying “Children of Memory”.

It’s the (last?) book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Children of…” series – an eon-and-galaxy-spanning set of stories where uplifted descendants of earth creatures interact with the remains of humanity on (generally) badly-terraformed worlds.

One thing that struck like a gong was how perfectly-coincident my reading was with the rise of ChatGPT, and the surrounding hype and hot-takes. Matt W’s recent post on AI and sentience pushed me over the edge.

I suspect the author of a tremendous feat of ‘skating to where the puck will be” based on GPT-3 etc.

Without giving too much away, one of the uplifted life forms is a race of corvids – known as the Corvids, who exist as bonded pairs.

They are a kind of organic GAN or generative-adversarial network, constantly dismantling everything around them – learning and bickering their way toward incredibly effective solutions that other species miss – and leading to the other species in the book to speculate on their sentience in much the same way as many in the last year or two have around GPT-n – including an advanced AI based on an uploaded human (who runs on a computational substrate made of ants, by the way…)

Hear are a few passages from late in the book where that AI questions them around their apparent sentience:

Strutting around and shaking out their wings. Through all the means available to her, she watches them and tries to work out what it must be like to be them. Do they understand what has happened to them? They say they do, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.

She thinks of problem-solving AI algorithms from back in her day, which could often find remarkably unintuitive but effective solutions to things whilst being dumb as bricks in all other respects. And these were smart birds, nothing like that. She wanted them to drop the act, basically. She wanted them to shrug and eye each other and then admit they were human-like intellects, who’d just been perpetrating this odd scam for their own amusement. And yet the birds mutter to one another in their own jabber, quote poetry that predates whole civilizations, and refuse to let her in.

The two birds stand side by side, stiff as parade ground soldiers. As though they’re about to defend their thesis or give a final report to the board. ‘We understand the principles you refer to,’ Gothi states. ‘It was a matter that much concerned our progenitors on Rourke, after diplomatic relations were established between our two houses both alike in dignity.’ Word salad, as though some Dadaist was plucking ideas at random from a hat and ending up by chance with whole sentences. ‘Sentience,’ adds Gethli. ‘Is what is a what? And, if so, what?’ ‘You think,’ Kern all but accuses them. ‘You’d think we think,’ he either answers or gives back a mangled echo. ‘But we have thought about the subject and come to the considered conclusion that we do not think. And all that passes between us and within us is just mechanical complexity.’ ‘We have read the finest behavioural studies of the age, and do not find sentience within the animal kingdom, save potentially in that species which engineered us,’ Gothi agrees. ‘You’re telling me that you’re not sentient,’ Kern says. ‘You’re quoting references.’ ‘An adequate summation,’ Gethli agrees.

‘The essential fallacy,’ Gothi picks up, ‘is that humans and other biologically evolved, calculating engines feel themselves to be sentient, when sufficient investigation suggests this is not so. And that sentience, as imagined by the self-proclaimed sentient, is an illusion manufactured by a sufficiently complex series of neural interactions. A simulation, if you will.’ ‘On this basis, either everything of sufficient complexity is sentient, whether it feels itself to be or not, or nothing is,’ Gethli tells her. ‘We tend towards the latter. We know we don’t think, so why should anything else?’ ‘And in the grander scheme of things, it’s not important,’ Gothi concludes imperiously.

Children of Memory, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Wonderful stuff. Hugely recommended.

Does any one know if Mr Tchaikovsky has commented on what approaches a keen-eyed (magpie?) satire in his work of current AI hype?

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