Deborah Yaffe

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Jane talks back

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen lived a very long time ago, in a world whose gender roles, social conditions, and technological context are largely alien to us. It’s likely that our world would seem equally incomprehensible to her.


But that hasn’t prevented any number of writers from regaling us with accounts of What Jane Would Say about. . . modern dating, or wellness regimens, or job-hunting. Of course, all these people were just putting words in her mouth, since poor Jane couldn’t speak for herself.


Until now.


Yes, at last Jane Austen is talking back. And not just Jane Austen! Get ready for conversations with a host of famous artists and scientists, from Isaac Newton and Marie Curie to Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.


The project, created by a novelist and magician named Andrew Mayne, relies on artificial intelligence software from the research lab OpenAI “to create simulated conversations with virtual historical figures,” according to an online account at the technology news site The Next Web. “The system first works out the purpose of the message and the intended recipient by searching for patterns in the text. It then uses the [software’s] internal knowledge of that person to guess how they would respond in their written voice.”


Every Janeite has a mental list of the questions she would ask Jane Austen, if presented with the opportunity: questions about her writing process, say, or her opinions on the political controversies of her day, or that thing with Tom Lefroy.


Mayne didn’t ask Artificial Intelligence Jane Austen about any of that, alas. He asked how her characters would use social media.


“I’d have Emma promote her self-published book on Facebook,” AIJA replied. “I’d have Emma update her status with a lament about the deplorable state of the publishing industry in a desperate attempt to get her Facebook friends to buy her book.”


From an AI point of view, I guess it’s impressive that AIJA writes reasonably idiomatic English prose. And it’s reassuring to discover that Jane Austen is just as clueless about book marketing as any other struggling author.


But really: Emma wrote a book? As if! She can’t even muster the discipline to read one!


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