The Imitation of Consciousness: On the Present and Future of Natural Language Processing


In May 2018, Sundar Pichai of Google announced that their artificial intelligence, Duplex AI, had passed the Turing test. A robotic assistant could make an appointment in a voice that possessed a human inflection and an informality of manner and with a sophistication of expression that rendered the machine indistinguishable from a human assistant. The initial reaction was retreat. A few days later, Google announced that Duplex AI would identify itself as a robot when making calls. Engineers created a machine that was indistinguishable from a person and then insisted that machine distinguish itself from a person. The collective confusion around the arrival of virtual beings, the horror mingled with wonder, is apparent right from the start.

Engineers and scientists fear artificial intelligence in a way they have not feared any technology since the atomic bomb. Stephen Hawking has declared that “AI could be the worst event in the history of civilization.” Elon Musk, not exactly a technophobe, calls AI “our greatest existential threat.” Outside of AI specialists, people tend to fear artificial intelligence because they’ve seen it at the movies, and it’s mostly artificial general intelligence they fear, machine sentience. It’s Skynet from Terminator. It’s Data from Star Trek. It’s Ex Machina. It’s Her. But artificial general intelligence is as remote as interstellar travel; its existence is imaginable but not presently conceivable. Nobody has any idea what it might look like. Meanwhile, the artificial intelligence of natural language processing is arriving. In January, 2021, Microsoft filed a patent to reincarnate people digitally through distinct voice fonts appended to lingual identities garnered from their social media accounts. I don’t see any reason why it can’t work. I believe that, if my grandchildren want to ask me a question after I’m dead, they will have access to a machine that will give them an answer and in my voice. That’s not a “new soul.” It is a mechanical tongue, an artificial person, a virtual being. The application of machine learning to natural language processing achieves the imitation of consciousness, not consciousness itself, and it is not science fiction. It is now.

When OpenAI released GPT-3, they specifically insisted that users of the beta refrain from using it for political speech. They fear GPT-3 as a tool of mass manipulation, and they are right to fear it. Even deeper fears are surfacing. Twenty-five years ago, Deep Blue beat the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and the meaning of chess changed after that event—it became a game with correct and incorrect decisions rather than an expression of style and vision. That transformative moment has come for language, and for every aspect of commercial and quotidian life based in language—society, politics, the self. The period in which the defining human attribute was the ability to make language is passing if it has not already passed.

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