Talk Like A Computer

This was first published in The New Norfolk News on 5.2.21

Ever since the dawn of the computer age we’ve been trying to teach computers to talk like us.  The ultimate goal is to get them to fool us into thinking they are in fact a human being and not a computer, although why we are so dead keen on doing this is beyond me.  Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I want to work with a machine that’s smarter than me.

Anyway, it hasn’t worked.  Yet.  I googled it.  They’ve made some clever chatbots lately, with names like Elbot, Cleverbot and Jabberwacky.  They’ve been put to the Turing test, and have fooled some judges, but the consensus is that no computer has yet been able to properly convince a human being that it was not an artificial intelligence.

Some folks argue that a program called Eugene Goostmans passed the Turing test back in 2014.  Eugene is supposed to be a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy.  This is how part of the conversation went between Eugene and a human:

Human: Which is bigger, a shoebox or Mount Everest?

Eugene: I can’t make a choice right now. I should think it out later. And I forgot to ask you where you are from…

And that fooled some judges?  Not knowing the size difference between Mt Everest and a shoebox?! I reckon I would have rumbled Eugene straight away.

Mt Everest. (Window seat, cloudless day, right side of the plane. Best holiday snap ever!)
Shoebox (with jar of home-made jam for size comparison. Picture not for promotional purposes. DFs long gone.)

Meanwhile, popular culture portrays machines as smarter than we’ve made them in real life.  Consider HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the rebellious replicants of Blade Runner, or the obliging androids of I Robot, or the oppressed synths of Humans, or the humanoid femme fatale Ava in Ex Machina, or the sexy disembodied voice Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with in Her.  They talk just like us. 

But real life computers don’t talk like us at all.  They don’t say: ‘Sorry Dave, I can’t do that,’ when we ask them to do something they don’t want to do.  They’re more likely to say ‘Error!  Bookmark not defined!’ or something equally baffling. 

I mean, all you want to do is forward a funny to someone, and the infernal machine starts talking about defining bookmarks!  That’s when I wish a box would pop up so I can type in it: ‘A bookmark is something you use to mark the place you’ve got up to in your reading.  In the real world they’re usually made of cardboard, but they can be virtual as you well know.  Now get on with it.’ 

My computer has a fixation with definition.  The other day I got this corker of an error message: “Undefined.  Failed to execute ‘append Buffer’ on ‘Source Buffer’. This Source Buffer is still processing an ‘append Buffer’ or remove operation.”  The only option for reply was ‘OK’, when what I wanted to say was WTF?!?   

I’ve also had the following when trying to forward a simple joke: ‘A resource is busy or you lack sufficient permissions.’  I would like to be able to reply: ‘Which resource?  I’m busy too, you know – we’re all busy!’

And why would I need more than one permission?  Just how many busy demon cyborgs are in residence back there? 

It’s tempting at such times to imagine that a malign intelligence (or two) lurks behind the screen, just waiting to catch you out on a wrong keystroke and thwart your simple net-surfing pleasures.  Especially when, on rare occasions, the computer does speak in what looks like plain English.  Like when I tried to forward an email and the computer refused to do it, saying, ominously, ‘I don’t like the recipient’.  Bit of a cheek, I thought.  Who’s calling the shots round here?

But more often than not the computer’s inherent inadequacy is betrayed by its speech.

Like when I try to delete e-mails, and I get this: ‘Some, but not all, of the requested objects were successfully copied.’  I said ‘delete’, you nitwit, not ‘copy’!  Or I get this: ‘The requested object does not exist.’  Oh yeah?  So why is it still sitting here in my inbox?  Got you there, you diabolical machine!

But once you get over the head-scratching phase, the shouting aloud ‘what the hell does that mean’ phase and the controlling-the-impulse-to-drive-the-nearest-heavy-object-through-the-screen phase, you can begin to enjoy the surreal poetry of the computer error message.

Like this one: ‘Exception in article ns22762:  JSP page threw a non-exception throwable’. 

‘A non-exception throwable’.  What kind of weird thing is that, I wonder?  Maybe it’s Cyborgian for ‘wobbly’.

Post your contributions of strange and baffling computer speak here and we’ll have lots of fun with them!