On Automated Philosophy

A personal story of art and intelligence

Max Braun

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This text, initially written in the summer of 2021, is part of a lecture series about language and AI at ToftH School. The original quotes can be found in the German version.

There’s a slightly yellowed book sitting on my desk. The cover is square and kept entirely in lowercase letters. It reads: “max bense theorie der texte [theory of texts] kiepenheuer & witsch”. Almost sixty years after its publication, I’m looking at the screen in front of me and read the words “OpenAI Beta Playground”.

The company OpenAI offers an experimental service to interact with GPT-3, their much discussed speech-based artificial intelligence. Given an arbitrary text, GPT-3 can predict which tokens are most likely to follow next. The results are surprisingly coherent sentences, which can even take more abstract context into account.

The technology is based on the Transformer architecture for artificial neural networks developed at Google a few years ago. What makes GPT-3 special is the extraordinary amount of training data. This AI has read virtually the whole Internet and, through this, independently learned to credibly imitate natural language. Here, language is to be understood as a generalized concept. The text can be composed in English or German, or even in a programming language.

“Artificial poetry is therefore one that does not arise out of consciousness, but lies in language itself”.

Max Bense (1910–1990) was a German philosopher and writer. His most influential contributions were to the fields of semiotics and aesthetics. Beginning in the 1950s, the Stuttgart School formed around him, a group of scientists and artists who experimented with new forms of expression.

Even though, at the time, computers had not yet permeated our everyday lives as profoundly as today, their revolutionary significance was already evident for theorists like Bense. Particularly, the new possibility of subjecting a work of art to automated character processing opened the door both to ambitious attempts at a formalization of aesthetics through statistics and to the earliest experiments with generative art. Nowadays, we rarely…

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Max Braun

Engineering at Google AI. Previously building products in robotics, wearables, and augmented reality. Exploring art, technology, and philosophy. braun.design