Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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Avidan and Eliza

I've finished reading an interesting book by Hebrew poet David Avidan, titled "My Electronic Psychiatrist". The book is in Hebrew, and is a transcript of eight authentic conversations the author has conducted with the original computer program Eliza. This is old hat for most of my friends, but for those who don't know Eliza, here's an informative link to the original article its creator wrote back in 1965.

The interesting thing, anyhow, is not the supposed intelligence of Eliza (its author never made the claim that his program is intelligent, and was in fact later shocked to discover some of the people experimenting with Eliza refusing to believe that its conversation is entirely machine-generated), but what David Avidan makes of these often-repetitive, mostly frustrating conversations. He makes various attempts to force meaningful answers from the machine (and fails), but he insists on maintaining the line of conversation, never letting slip any suspicion he may be harboring as to the machine's consciousness or lack thereof. Avidan talks to Eliza about various topics, including aging, death, aliens, fitness, sex, over-eating, intelligence, immortality, consciousness, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Although I, as a programmer with some experience in computer text manipulation and previous familiarity (and even personal experience) with Eliza, can easily detect the patterns used by the computer to respond to Avidan's input, and do not attribute to Eliza any intelligence whatsoever, the book was a very interesting read because of Avidan's conversation, and because of the use he makes of the computer for his own literary ends.

It seems Avidan set out to write a book using Eliza, following his discovery of the program (the conversations were held back in the 1960s, at the Israeli branch of IBM, when computer hours were expensive and unavailable to the public), but he clearly considers the computer his source of stimulation. He brings thoughts and develops them as he goes, responding to Eliza's prompting and constantly asking the machine for additional insight or commentary on his ideas.

Avidan was fascinated by technology and science, and was an avid consumer of science-fiction and speculative-fiction literature and films. He was personally experimenting with incorporating the ideas of SF in his art, both poetic and cinematic. His inquiring mind and the remarkable disparity of his knowledge and interests are evident throughout the book.

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