Two figures for generative AI: the calculator and the mad scientist’s assistant

As people grapple with ChatGPT 3 and other instances of generative artificial intelligence, we sometimes turn to imagination in order to describe and understand the technology.

I’ve seen folks raise the Terminator movies, HAL-9000, and generic scary robots to express their fears, for example.

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  Others use history, bring up comparisons from prior technological revolutions, to think through possibilities: AI like the European printing press.  One of my young students told me AI feels to him like the appearance of the world wide web must have felt to me in the 1990s. (And sometimes it does.)

In this post I’d like to offer two historical analogies or imaginative figures for how we might experience generative AI.

I: The Calculator

When I started playing with generative AI and thinking about its educational implications I thought back to the rise of the commodity digital calculator, back in the 1970s.  I remembered debates over its potential impact which occurred around me.  Students might not learn basic math, went one claim, and would instead outsource those crucial skills to handhelds.   Numerical literacy would dwindle, just when it was needed as society became every more closely tied to rapidly advancing science and technology.

calculator_Awilda Ortiz or 125329869

Over time we integrated calculators into teaching in various ways.  To oversimplify, some classes went on require graphing calculators. Others, instructing younger students, teach the operations first, then let students outsource the work later on.  In other words, a pedagogical consensus emerged which included the technology.  The consensus persisted even as the physical calculator migrated into software forms.

There are already practices emerging now which follow the calculator’s story in apprehending generative AI. For example, some instructors want to have students use ChatGPT to create essays, then critique them as bland, badly cited writing, which helps them advance their own composition abilities.  Alternatively, students can use large language model tools to create first drafts of content, then edit, amend, and improve them on their own.  And so on.

Remember, too, that while we are accustomed to calculators in our lives, as they are embedded deeply in them to the point of being background noise, we don’t actually use them simply.  The world rarely gives us simple math problems we can enter, then results we can use straight away.  Instead, life mostly presents us with those dreaded story problems, which we need to translate into an operation calculators will perform. Then we need to do stuff with the results.  So it is with generative AI. On the front end we need to formulate useful parameters, which takes some doing (and how many classes teach this?). On the back end we often have to work with the results: picking the best image of a set, redoing the prompt, perhaps editing the best image in another app. Or we take a chatbot’s text as a draft to revise.

Now, this calculator comparison assumes generative AI is competent as a calculator. It isn’t the case in reality now, as a range of AI make mistakes or produce terrible results. Yet we might see the technology’s quality improve to a point where many people find it sufficient for their purposes.  As one observer put it, “ChatGPT and its fellow essay bots are simply the scientific calculators of writing in a world that is still obsessed with four-function calculators.”  Heck, you can use ChatGPT to code a calculator.

II: Igor, the mad scientist’s unstable assistant

Alternatively, Bing’s chatbot et al might not become that reliable.  Instead, these tools might act erratically.  Like a mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant.  As Igor.

Igor Marty Feldman

“EYE-gor,” that is.

Igor wants to help, but sometimes gets… creative, and provides results far from what we asked for.  Igor usually obeys us (the mad scientist), but sometimes wants to follow his own plan or the voices of others (think of the famous “guardrails”).  Remember the strangest art which you’ve coaxed from Stable Diffusion or Craiyon, those transmissions from the uncanny valley, or read about a New York Times writer’s weird Bing chat. ChatGPT and Bing’s chatbot do quickly leap to churn out the text you require, yet at times will just balk, as per its internal (and sometimes mysterious) guidelines.  And ChatGPT is capable of cheerfully producing horrors on demand.

There’s a great, relevant scene in the fantastic Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The two mad scientists (it’s such a fine film that it won’t settle for just one), Frankenstein and Praetorius, complain about the quality of hearts in the cadavers they have.

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  One assistant hears this and helpfully stalks off to grab and murder a casual passerby, then provide the resulting fresh corpse, which pleases the mad scientists.  The assistant did help out, albeit in an, er, unorthodox fashion.

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Playing the Igor off of the calculator, we see two very different understandings of generative AI.

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Either we see it as stable or unstable.  We view these tools as easily understood (most calculator functions are clear to many users) or susceptible to following commands other than our own.  Its quality is durable or sometimes risible.

Both technologies and their analogies can be frightening at times.  The calculator is less so, yet like many labor-saving devices, threatens to weaken our individual capacity to perform, or even understand, that labor.  The hunchbacked assistant can easily wreck havoc, even when trying to follow our instructions. While a calculator is cool, unremarkable, and office-friendly, an Igor is ungainly, warped, unpredictable, and strange.

There are other figures and metaphors for us to use, of course.  Today I’d just like to offer and contrast these two, at least for entertainment, and perhaps for a touch of imagination.

I’d like to close with an image from Bride of Frankenstein, which combines a freaking assistant with cool, reliable tech:


One of the poor henchmen in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

(calculator photo by Awilda Ortiz; Marty Feldman from the vast archive of Giphy; The Bride of Frankenstein’s Karl the Henchman from this wiki)

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17 Responses to Two figures for generative AI: the calculator and the mad scientist’s assistant

  1. I used ChatGPT AI to allow me to have a meaningful conversation about theoretical mathematics with my son, who, completely unlike me, is gifted in that area (as well as others).

    Bryan, I have a transcript of the chat if you would like to see it.

    I’ve also been discussing the creation of an “Empathy AI” system to serve as a sort of counselor or therapist for people who may have psychological disabilities such as dementia, or even for people who just want to talk through their feelings, ideas, plans, etc.

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind as a variant on the mad scientist’s assistant.

  3. Peter Hess says:

    It isn’t just metaphor we’re dealing with. We are stewing in politcal disinformation, ransomware, proliferation of, hate speech, coordination of insurrections, COVID (and other health related) lies, an endless bestiary of scams, and on and on., and these are also what inform our imaginations regarding AI. Of course there have been positive aspects to these same internet technologies, but given the human fascination with the dark side, those are very easy to overlook. It is easier to imagine (for me anyway) that, in the contention between beneficial and detrimental results, that the bad will overwhelm the good, than it is to imagine the opposite.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      World Keeps Turning // Song by Tom Waits

      On our anniversary
      There’ll be someone else where you used to be
      The world don’t care and yet it clings to me
      And the moon is gold and silvery
      Who knows where the sidewalk ends?
      Well, the road will turn and the road will bend
      They always say He marks the sparrow’s fall
      How can anyone believe it all?
      Well, the band has stopped playing but we keep dancing
      The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      On his hand he wore the ring of another
      And the world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      We broke the bank and we tore up the place
      And we disappeared oh without a trace
      Now the sun it falls into the sea
      And around the only one for me
      I was so green and the dress you wore was yellow
      And the world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      The sun is down and the moon is in the meadow
      And the world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      Put a hat on your head
      Will you paint the whole damned town red with me?
      Well, the band has stopped playing but we keep dancing
      The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      On his hand he wore the ring of another
      The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning
      The world keeps turning, the world keeps turning

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Indeed, plenty of dark side options. Did you see my previous post, extrapolating some AI futures?

  4. Mark Vickers says:

    For myself, your student was right. The last time I felt this way was when the Internet emerged. Even before the WWW, when I was using the Gopher to cruise through the state library catalogs, I was crazy excited! I would spend hours on it and talk about how it was going to change the world. My family was dead sick of me.

    This time it’s similar except with a greater sense of trepidation. We have barely been able to handle the Internet itself. Now we have powerful artificial intelligences that can help us do things we could never do before. With great power comes great responsibility, as the comic books say. I’m just afraid we are no longer responsible enough to handle it, if we ever were.

  5. Geoff Cain says:

    I have been privileged as a teacher because my students have been “bland, badly cited writing, which helps them advance their own composition abilities” without the aid of generative AI for years.

  6. Marie says:

    As a copywriter I can tell you than our lot is also facing a dilemma. AI can be a shortcut to writing texts (don’t tell the boss, though), or it can be a potential job-killer. My opinion is that it will not do any harm to those involved in writing/lingustics – just as Google Translate or Grammarly. They are helpful tools for those who already know how to write and read, but never a wholesome substitute (if we speak about quality content).

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