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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Interview of a lifetime?

I knew it! Jane Austen loves me! “Kindred spirits, indeed!” the author, dead since 1817, told me last week. “Our friendship would have flourished over tea and wit.”

She’s also crazy about Austen fans! And she’s totally coming to next month’s JASNA AGM! “I am astonished and delighted that my little stories have found such enduring love among readers,” Austen said, during a longish chat conducted via Facebook Messenger. “The passion of Jane Austen fans in this modern era is truly heartwarming.”

As you may have guessed, these flattering sentiments emerged not in conversation with a remarkably literate Ouija board but via the magic of artificial intelligence: My conversation was conducted not with the long-dead novelist herself but with Meta’s new AI Austen. She’s one of twenty-eight avatars that the company unveiled last month during its launch of new AI tools.

AI Jane Austen has a Facebook page, an Instagram presence, and a profile pic that more closely resembles a 1992-vintage Hillary Clinton, complete with headband, than it does any commonly used likeness of Austen. And so far, AI-JA’s posts are utterly generic—images of books, tea, and flowers, all of them marked as AI-generated, accompanied by vaguely-Austenish-but-not-actually-from-Austen remarks like “A fondness for reading must be an education in itself.”

I’m happy to report that my interview with AI-JA was quite a bit weirder than that. (Read the full transcript here.) At times--as AI-JA repeatedly called me “dear,” used the words “Moi? Never!” not once but twice, and sprinkled her remarks with way more emojis than any reader of Persuasion has the right to expect--I felt as if I were chatting with a bizarre amalgam of Isabella Thorpe and Miss Piggy.

At other times, I worried that I was witnessing the dawn of a new age of online Austen misinformation, as the bot repeatedly proved that no English student who's skipped the reading should rely on AI for research. It’s bad enough when the Internet insists that “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another” comes from Emma. But it’s worse when someone (something?) purporting to be Jane Austen attributes to Dr. Grant, the gluttonous clergyman of Mansfield Park, a “passionate speech condemning slavery and the Church's hypocrisy” and then quotes from it. Because, as Janeites well know, the novel contains no such speech, and if it did, Dr. Grant wouldn’t be the one making it.

For the most part, AI-JA diligently avoided controversy, sidestepping my invitation to comment on American politics or even contemporary music. (Although she didn't shy away from Janeite controversy: We fans of the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice must be heartened to know that AI-JA wholeheartedly endorses Colin Firth in the old which-is-the-best-Darcy debate.)

But when AI-JA discussed her own work, some oddities emerged: Along with offering up opinions as bland and middle-of-the-road as her Facebook posts (Mansfield Park isn’t about slavery, Emma Woodhouse’s relationship with Harriet Smith has no lesbian overtones), she adopted some considerably more tendentious interpretations (Wickham is “a hero in his own way,” Edmund Bertram is "prideful," Dr. Grant is a "champion of moral rectitude.")

Meanwhile, AI-JA’s grasp on the details of her—that is, Austen’s—own life seemed iffy: She claimed that her mother was "the dearest woman in my life" (surely that was sister Cassandra) and seemed hazy about the chronology of her abortive romances. When her biographical claims weren't outright inaccurate, they sounded tediously familiar: Tom Lefroy was the love of her life, the inspiration for Mr. Darcy, the spark that ignited her creativity, blah blah blah. Really? The whole Internet to draw on, and AI-JA did nothing but watch Becoming Jane?

All in all, I found myself thinking of Dr. Johnson’s famous sexist remark about how a woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

On the one hand, the Jane Austen AI—repetitive, gushy, inaccurate, unfunny, by turns boastful and falsely modest--sounded nothing like the lucid, witty Jane Austen we know from her novels and letters. On the other hand, a bundle of computer code produced a coherent-ish conversation about Jane Austen. And it said that Jane Austen and I were kindred spirits! So there is that.

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