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New ‘Computer Prophet’ generates profound metaphors for life and death

The AI system offers human existence in new ways

UCLA student Elias Henriksen designed the AI-powered Computer Prophet to answer existential questions through novel metaphors.

Life is a prison in which we all live. Once the bars are down, it becomes obscene what everybody else is doing.

So says the Computer Prophet, a new AI system that spits out pearls of wisdom in the form of metaphors. The project is the brainchild of UCLA student Elias Henriksen, who created it to help us answer life’s most profound questions.

We often express our existential concerns through metaphors, as they help us relate our own experiences to abstract concepts. Research suggests that people who apply their own metaphors to life report greater meaning — especially those with a strong need for structure.

As Henrikensen puts it in his research paper on the project:

Questions inherently hold a single answer. Metaphor, on the other hand, is a device that provides answers which incite understanding while allowing for multiple paradigms and belief-systems to coexist. Through metaphor, life can simultaneously exist as a journey, festival, story, game, sport, auction, gift, and opportunity.

[Read: Can AI convincingly answer existential questions?]

Unfortunately, our individual experiences limit our ability to create meaningful metaphors for such complex concepts. The Computer Prophet attempts to overcome these constraints through the power of machine learning.

Inside the Computer Prophet

The system uses OpenAI’s GPT-2 text generator to generate novel metaphors. Henriksen trained the model on 3.6 megabytes of metaphors, quotes, proverbs, idioms, and other metaphorical words collected from various online sources and archives. He then prompted the system to add its creations to a series of target subjects, such as “Life is __.”

Of the 900 metaphors it generated for nine different targets, 70% were in the structure of conceptual metaphors, and 85% were coherent.

Even if you’re not convinced of the philosophical need for the Computer Prophet, the metaphors it generates are still worth checking out. Here’s its rather jingoistic musing on war:

War is a divine that involves the individual but ultimately the nation. And winning it is about much more than physical skill. It is about a love of country, about believing in the future, about respecting and protecting one’s borders, and about being concerned about the welfare of all people.

A more conceptual metaphor is this one on ideas:

Ideas are like wine. You need to let them mature in the cask, until the flavor has mellowed and you can enjoy them.

Henriksen has also invited Redditors to submit their own questions to the system. One asked the most fundamental question of them all: “What is the meaning of life?”

The Computer Prophet responded with a series of metaphors that ranged from depressing to uplifting. Here are three of my favorites:

Life is a black hole eventually. At the very center of it all, the very center of everything, is a tiny speck of dust. Everything else is a distant whisper in the massive cosmic ear-hole.

Life is made up of sudden epiphanies lost in the whirlwind.

Life is a course that must be traveled, a journey into the unknown. It is a journey not taken lightly. We must boldly go where no one has gone in years.

Henrikensen says the system’s ability to introduce novel, profound, and coherent metaphors for a specific subject could “transform how existence is rationalized.” It’s certainly a bold ambition, but as someone who’s prone to existential crises, I think it’s worth a shot.

Published July 7, 2020 — 20:06 UTC