Monday morning I texted Kyle Chayka’s bot to find out how his weekend was.
Hi, are you ready to hear about my weekend? [Yes / No]
I texted back, “Yes!”
Great! Well, on Friday night I played this weird Pokemon fighting game with some of my friends. TBH I miss the old, 2D Pokemon. [Same / Bored already]
It went on. I found out that Chayka also had been to a house party in Greenpoint, the Cao Fei show at MoMA PS1 in Queens, and is reading The Sight of Death by T. J. Clark.
The bot texted me again, about the book.
The famous art historian stares at the same paintings for months on end. How does that sound to you?
“Boring,” I replied.
It seemed the bot had been expecting this answer because a second later it responded, “Yeah, it’s really boring, but kind of in a good way, like a professor reading you a lullaby. And he has these sporadic epiphanies. Anyway, how was your weekend?”
My weekend was good, but let’s get back to bots.
— Peter Sterne (@petersterne) April 17, 2016
The big news of last week was Facebook’s announcement of new tools for developers to build bots inside Facebook Messenger. Facebook envisions a future where much technical or rote communication can be done by bots programmed with machine learning capabilities. Or, in common parlance: that bots are the future.
“I was just thinking about how silly the whole bot trend is,” Chayka responded to our question about why he made his Weekend Bot. “The media dialogue around bots suggest that they’ll be a savior to writers and media companies, like they’ll be a new, proprietary way to reach users. The truth is that bots are just as superficial and dumb as any other format — Tweets, newsletters, Snapchats. It’s all just Content. So my Weekend Bot was a way to surf that wave as well as make fun of it. If bots are the future, I might as well outsource my communication to one already, right?”
Chayka is a freelance journalist who lives in Bushwick. His work has been published at Bloomberg, Newsweek, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Last year we covered his founding of a coworking space for freelance journalists, also in Bushwick.
“I know basically no programming, so anyone can do it,” he wrote in an email.
So there are two questions: is this the future? And is the future better or worse?
The past has a lot of instances of people making tools that can do work for them, so to the extent that bots can reliably replace boring or expensive human work, that trend of history seems unlikely to be broken.
The second question remains up for debate. A lot of people worry bots and software will put people out of work.
Albert Wenger, a partner at the Manhattan investment firm Union Square Ventures, has written a good deal on the prospect of machines and software replacing labor. One of the best posts on his well-read personal blog called Continuations is The Information Age. The piece provides a short historical context for technology displacing labor, going all the way back to the beginning of man.
Wenger is a proponent of a universal basic income as a remedy to the rapid displacement of labor. The idea is fundamentally that machines will produce surplus wealth, which can be distributed to the general population, providing people a means of income since they won’t be working. And this way they can focus on creating art or music or books, or furniture, or generally whatever their passion is.
(Last week Hamilton Nolan published a piece on Gawker about universal basic income and a long interview with the theorist Rutger Bregmann. Also worth a read.)
Others think that capital will continue to exploit labor and in a robot economy the rich will do what they like and everyone else will suffer what they must.
Or we could just make jokes.
All this is likely still off a good ways in the future, after all. I was impressed that Chayka’s bot, with only two hours of work by a non-programmer, was able to read my response, saying Chayka’s book sounded boring and respond to it.
“Your answer was the ‘right’ one to follow the logic of the conversation, but the bot isn’t really smart at all,” he corrected me. “It’s more like choose-your-own-adventure.”
Well, it outsmarted human me, at least.-30-
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