By Writing Excuses | January 26, 2014 - 7:47 pm - Posted in Research, Sci-fi, Season 9

Nancy Fulda, herself a lettered student of artificial intelligence, joins us to talk about writing artificial intelligence believably. We fire questions at her so that you don’t have to!

We talk about what’s current, what’s coming, and what it is that we’re all expecting. We also cover some of the things that writers get wrong (at least insofar as they knock the cognoscenti out of the story.)

Liner Notes: Here’s the article Howard mentioned, “Evolving a Conscious Machine,” from the June 1998 Discover. He got the details almost 100% wrong, but the gist of it was still there.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge, narrated by Eric Conger (note: Howard got this wrong -- no apostrophe at all! And yes, a lantern got hung upon that particular missing bit of punctuation.)

Writing Prompt: Go to the Internet and look up Bayesian learning, neural networks, and genetic algorithms. Yes, it's more of a reading prompt.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, January 26th, 2014 at 7:47 pm and is filed under Research, Sci-fi, Season 9. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. January 26, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

    Man that reading prompt, you guys are MEAN. Stuff can pop a person’s head if they go in cold :P

    Posted by Patrick Sullivan
  2. January 27, 2014 @ 1:17 am

    “We anthropomorphize our toasters!” is a great line in context.

    Nancy made a fascinating observation: Programs like ELIZA are like stage magic; the more you know about how it works, the less magical it becomes. E.g. if you know how a Chess supercomputer works, you may still admire the engineering behind it, but you understand the actual process as rote data processing.

    In my experience, this does not happen with the human mind: After reading about new research that – often fundamentally – enhances our understanding of the human brain, mind, decision making, moral judgement, perception, or behaviour, I always come out with an even greater sense of wonder. You might say there is even more magic in it.

    Timothy’s Test: An AI is a “true” AI, if itbecomes more magicalthe more you know about how it works .

    This is not only very anthropocentric, but also quite subjective. But any test for AI “trueness” will be, because our concept of intelligence is.

    Posted by Timothy Cramer
  3. January 27, 2014 @ 2:39 am

    More Nancy please! :)

    Posted by Nizlemia
  4. January 27, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    That writing prompt… writing excuses does not mess around. Looking forward to listening to this one tomorrow. My own AI story went nowhere for various reasons.

    Posted by Cory Robinson
  5. January 27, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    […] Tweet of the Day: Writing Excuses 9.4: Artificial Intelligence with Nancy Fulda […]

  6. January 27, 2014 @ 9:21 am

    Did you intentionally switch from 96kbps to 256kbps? It made the mp3 file almost three times the size of your previous podcasts.

    Posted by Doug
  7. January 27, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    @Doug: I’ll check with Jordo. It’s possible this was an export error (for “likely” values of “possible.”)

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  8. January 27, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    @Nizlemia: We loved recording with Nancy. There are more Nancy episodes in the mixing queue, and I’m sure we’ll have her back in the future.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  9. January 27, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    Ooh, I have to go listen to see if the audio quality got better. My wife and I often listen to this together in the car, and while we love the ‘cast, we often have a lot of trouble with the audio. Generally the problem is that Brandon (my favorite) is too loud if we turn up the audio enough to hear Mary (my wife’s favorite).

    Posted by Terrell
  10. January 27, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

    Thanks for the podcast. AI’s always throw me off because I think of something cool, then next thing I know a friend or someone comes to me and goes ‘Look at this cool new tech I have!’ and suddenly my creations don’t sound so creative anymore.

    Posted by Carmen White
  11. January 27, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

    I’d love for this topic to be revisited the next time Nancy is on the podcast. That was fascinating.

    Posted by Kim Mainord
  12. January 28, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    ok, I’m not even into the episode and I have to drop you guys a line.

    the Uplifted Kitten was classic… I had to rewind and listen again.

    love the show as always

    Posted by Laith Preston
  13. January 28, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    And for the textually oriented sapient beings out there…

    A Transcript!

    Posted by 'nother Mike
  14. January 29, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    Great episode! Would anyone have a citation, or avenue to search for the story Howard told of the computers programming TI 555 timers? Would love to read more about that.

    I can’t believe neither the movie Her, nor IBM’s Watson came up!

    Posted by Arch
  15. January 31, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    Nancy commented that she can’t figure out a way to make electronic work without a clock. Biological life appears to be that way, too.

    The CLOCK (Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput) gene controls the persistence and period of our circadian rhythm, which in turn influences reproduction, mood, and sleep. We don’t have just one circadian clock, but rather the one in our brain helps synchronize the “63 different systems” (to borrow a Howardism) in our body that have their own clocks (and yes, it is possible, if something goes wrong, you have your liver on London time when the rest of you in on New York time). And the Circadian rhythm is just one of several clock systems in our bodies.

    Generally speaking, the more I learn about biology and electronics, the more they appear to be fundamentally the same.

    Posted by J D Tolson
  16. February 4, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    Thanks for this great episode! I have been struggling with a story featuring an AI protagonist, and this has given me a couple of ideas and avenues to go down. Thanks for all your hard work.

    Posted by Bill
  17. February 15, 2014 @ 8:40 am

    Oh thank goodness Terrell brings up an issue I have with Writing Excuses. In fact, I emailed the show a few months back but never heard a thing. Mary’s so gosh darned quiet, but usually has the best things to contribute, making it frustrating to appreciate the whole program. Can you turn up the gain on Mary’s microphone?

    Posted by Chris
  18. February 21, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    […] Writing Excuses Podcast 9.4: Artifical Intelligence with Nancy Fulda […]

  19. February 23, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    Support for Mary’s point about inevitable anthropomorphisation…

    Posted by Elaine J
  20. February 27, 2014 @ 6:02 am

    […] of them is Writing Excuses, a podcast about writing science fiction.  One of the recent episodes featured Nancy Fulda to discuss writing about AI realistically.  In the discussion, she made an observation […]

  21. March 13, 2014 @ 6:07 am

    This episode prompted me to not only write but comment here for the first time. First, Nancy Fulda is an impressive writer and intellect. I hope to hear her voice on this ‘cast again. (and again)
    The last five minutes of the show directly benefited me by showing me another critical aspect of thinking about the AIs in my own novel-in-progress. Thank you!
    Great show.
    Rock on.

    Posted by Steve
  22. March 13, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    […] Writing Excuses 9.3: Character Perception vs. Narrative Perception Writing Excuses 9.4: Artificial Intelligence Writing Excuses 9.9: What to do When Truth is Stranger than Fiction Writing Excuses 9.10: Engaging […]