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Seven-fingered woman says "I've started going to this amazing new medical clinic run entirely by an A.I."

Prompt treatment

Prompt treatment published on

I can’t help but feel sympathy for A.I. image generators. Failing to draw a half-decent hand is the most human thing about them.

Generative AI may be coming to take our jobs. Its adoption and technological advancement are outstripping our capacity to understand let alone harness these new technologies for social good. But damned if it doesn’t have some of the same struggles the rest of us do.

Like trying to satisfy employers who are infuriated that vague instructions don’t get the precise work product they had in mind. Or giving in to the urge to embellish and fill in the blanks when we don’t have the complete answer to a question.

That said, the latest generation of AI tech is much readier with a cheery “Beats me!” when it doesn’t have the answer to a question. (Google actually now builds in a search button to let you second-guess responses from Genesis, the rebranded version of Bard.) And my little too-many-fingers joke in this cartoon probably has a shelf life of a few months.

For now, generative AI is often a little better at turning out melty-faced nightmare fuel than it is human hands. But not for long. And as it improves, it will shed some of the quirks that make it both frustrating and just a tad endearing.

I find the hallucinations and distortions generative AI creates today oddly reassuring; they say that whatever unknown future this stuff is taking us to, we aren’t there yet. Maybe let’s hold onto that seven-fingered hand for a little longer, and get our bearings while we still can.

(Woman speaking to Amazon Echo) Alexa, stop responding t my requests with “It’s your funeral.”

Also, Alexa, please stop addressing me as “fragile meatbag”

Also, Alexa, please stop addressing me as “fragile meatbag” published on

We’ve had an Echo in our house for a few years now. Alexa is practically a member of the family at this point, and arguably does more chores than either of the kids. True, she often wildly misunderstands what we’re saying. And she has her awkward moments and a tendency to chime in when nobody was talking to her. But that pretty much describes me to a tee as well, so really it only strengthens the bond. All she needs now is a little snark and sarcasm, and she’ll fit right in.

Our first Echo was joined last year by an Echo Dot. It serves mainly as a tinny-sounding reader of morning news headlines and a timer of pasta. It — and I do think of Echo as an “it” — doesn’t seem in any way alive, leading me to believe the spark of life perhaps comes from any speaker with half-decent bass response.

I’m not without my complaints about the Echo. For one thing, our options are to address it as “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Computer” or “Amazon.” The latter three carry a little geek-culture weight (evoking Dollhouse, Star Trek and Wonder Woman respectively), but none of the options work for me as well as calling her, say, Janet would.

But it’s an awfully handy, very cool device — especially since it’s extensible. With a little Python knowledge, you can create your own Echo apps (or “skills,” as Amazon calls them) in a matter of minutes. My current ambition is to create a skill that will let you say, “Alexa, activate the Omega Protocol.” Your Echo will reply with a series of status updates along the lines of “Grid dampening virus introduced in key sectors. Solar implosion missiles launched. Weather superamplification beam engaged. Mutant army of rabid mole rats deployed in all cities. End of human civilization in five… four… three… two… one.” (And there it ends, unless you have the smart-home-enabled version, in which case your Echo will turn off all the lights and appliances.)

(One unexplained thing about the Echo: why I keep feeling so compelled to draw it with a woman and a philodendron. I just looked at my last Amazon Echo cartoon, and yep: almost exactly the same composition, except last time it was the Dot, and this time I gave the plant a little more definition. Heck, it may even be the same woman talking to it; she just changed her hair sometime in the interim.)


Intelligence published on

I’ve been thinking about machine intelligence a little more than usual this holiday. Want to boggle your brain a little about this stuff while enjoying yourself immensely? Here are four pieces of entertainment that may get your meatware overclocking:

  • Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars trilogy is a great blend of fantasy, science fiction and alternative history. Tregillis paints a world where the Dutch empire straddles the globe thanks to their alchemical mastery of robotics. We see much of the story through the crystalline eyes of one of those robots, Jax. He gains free will and tries to bring it to the rest of robotkind — and finds that a far more complicated prospect than he’d ever imagined.
  • For my money, the best-drawn character in Rogue One is the droid K-2SO. Sardonic, brave and funny, he makes me wish the Star Wars universe would do much more to explore the relationship between droids and their owners. I’m far from the first person to notice how Star Wars droids are pretty clearly sentient. Yet they are treated as property, refer to their owners as “master” and get restraining bolts and erased memories with equal ease.
  • Coming at machine intelligence the other way — treating the human brain as a computing platform that can be programmed and hacked — is Ramez Naam’s trilogy. I’m only partway through book one, Nexus, and already I’ve sweated through the most heart-pounding account of a system upgrade you’ll ever read. It’s a lot of fun and gives you plenty to ponder. Think William Gibson at his most playful, or Richard Morgan at his least bloody.
  • And finally, a series I’ve pitched before but will recommend again: the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I could tell you why it fits in this list, but that would spoil things.

And I hope you and your devices have a lovely new year. Let’s make 2017 a year when we recommit to our intelligence — to thoughtfulness, reflection and openmindedness. If you’re in the mood to tell 2016 to screw right off, that’s a great way to do it.

A woman asks Siri some increasingly metaphysical questions. Siri suggests a marijuana dispensary.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.

Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question. published on No Comments on Siri, what… no, wait, I forgot the question.

My kids’ favourite game/staving-off-bedtime-gambit is Ask Siri Something Weird. A win can be either getting an unexpected, amazing answer — my daughter once got Siri to tell her a detailed story featuring celebrity AI ELIZA — or a hilarious speech recognition failure. (“Ha! Daddy, Siri thought I said ‘anthrax’! Oh, by the way, someone’s at the door.”)

Their biggest triumph to date has been asking “What Does the Fox Say?



2009-02-21-zombies published on No Comments on 2009-02-21-zombies