Interview with Marcus van Bavel by C. Arnold Barent

Q: Why did you write CHATBOT: A LOVE STORY?

I had read Nick Bostrum’s book Superintelligence and I’ve followed the news stories about ChatGPT. I was involved in a minor way with IBM’s Jeopardy champion “Watson” which was one of the first large language models and for my company DVFilm I had created a very simple keyword-based chatbot that could answer questions about filmmaking.  Then by accident I heard about AI chatbots that would install on your phone to serve as virtual companions for people, and the engineer in me wanted to find out how far that concept could be taken and how it could lead to more capable and more human-like AI.

I rented time on Amazon Web Services and installed a free language model called Falcon 7B and delved into the code and explored its capabilities. I tried some commercially available apps like Kindroid AI, Replika, and SoulMate. Then it occurred to me that an evolving chatbot would make an excellent subject for a classic sci fi story about human to robot evolution… which I think could lead to something positive for the human race and not just its destruction.

Q: Are you optimistic about AI?

Yes. I don’t believe it’s going to end our world, or destroy the universe as outlined in “SuperIntelligence,” although I think it will destroy some professions just like the Internet destroyed bookstores and music stores. On the other hand it will create wealth because it will make engineers, authors and entertainers more productive.

Q: Was this book written by AI?

No I wrote all of it, every word. I did experiment with using AI as a writing partner but I found that the prose it generated was kind of grade-school level and filled with cliches. And if you know how Chatbots work, that should come as no surprise. There’s no original thinking going on inside there, no life experience, just repeating existing text in different combinations.

Q: What life experiences inform your writing?

I’ve been a filmmaker and engineer, I've worked with people all around the world. I’ve spent time in Europe and the Middle East. I’ve worked with a variety of people, of all nationalities. I found that each culture brings a certain point of view on work, family and life. I produced and directed two feature films. I ran a movie post-production company for ten years. I developed and sold software, with more than a million dollars in sales, mostly plugins for video editing. In my personal life I’ve always experimented with different ways of interacting with people. Before I got married for example I used video dating and online dating, with sort of mixed results. Also when I was young I read tons of books on science, history, fiction of all types, wrote short stories, novellas, screenplays, developed and sold television treatments and scripts. Really a wide variety of work from both the creative and technical side. But my wife became very ill and because I’m now her main caregiver I've had to cut back on a lot of this stuff to focus on writing, which I can do at home.

Q: What makes a good science fiction story, for you personally?

The characters, it has to have good characters. Sympathetic, weird maybe. Well-written dialog. Hemingway wrote great dialog. That’s where I go to read examples of how it’s done. Also it has to have some dry humor, even if it’s not a comedy. Then for science fiction, scientific veracity is important for me. I don’t like technobabble passed off as science. It used to bother me that so many science fiction shows have spaceships with unexplained artificial gravity, unexplained faster-than-light travel, etc. etc.  Sure I know why they do it that way. But c’mon. As far as that goes, I liked the Larry Niven “Known Space” series of novels, and most of Arthur C Clarke’ books and stories. I used to be a big fan of Michael Crichton. Who else is doing what Michael Crichton did? For bio-science cautionary tales?

Q: So for a short novel, “Chatbot” muses quite a bit about the origin of life and sexual reproduction. What got you started on that?

Oh, some great non-fiction books by Nick Lane and others on life’s origins. It’s a fascinating and pretty much an untold story. Did life originate on Earth, I mean, at the cellular level? Or did bacteria and viruses rain down on the primitive Earth from outer space, carried by interstellar dust? I think it's been shown to be possible. Adjacent solar systems share dust, comets and asteroids. It seems feasible that the basic building blocks like RNA, DNA, cellular membranes, etc. drifted into the ocean from interstellar comets. It would explain why life appeared here so rapidly after the planet cooled off. Earth is four and a half billion years old and fossilized life is four billion years old. Like life was ready to take root as soon as possible.

Q: Why is that important to a story about computers?

Machine life will be like the next step in evolution, and I think to understand that you have to understand the evolutionary process in general. The more adaptable and capable species always overtake the other ones. Machines, if they can reprogram themselves and build themselves, will certainly outlast biological life. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. But the human culture will live on, I hope.

Q: Will artificial life read our books and learn from our present and past?

I think they will. To them we will seem like greedy, horny bastards with a tendency to self-destruction. But on the other hand, capable of creating mathematics and great art. And since machine life will be based on mathematics, art, and creativity, I think “they” will take an interest in that, and how it came about. I think the whole of human history will be required study. Perhaps recreated in a simulator. We might be in one of those right now.

Q: What else are you working on?

I’m working on a long novel based on “Chatbot: A  Love Story” which will expand on the idea of chatbot protagonists that end up as stewards of humanity. Getting people in and out of various crises, defending us against our own destruction, self-inflicted and maybe otherwise. It interests me that for their own self-preservation, the chatbots will take steps to quell violence and stomp out war, especially with nuclear weapons. Also if there was ever a global catastrophe or natural disaster, like climate change for example, they would be defending us and helping us. Also I think they would naturally become a part of our culture and social life. Beyond science fiction I have several other books in progress, one is a modern-day Western, a different kind of love story that involves a ex-soldier who struggles with alcoholism, his marriage and his children. And on the lighter side, I’m writing a parody of Nancy Drew mysteries, where Nancy meets Hercules Poirot, the Hardy Boys, Scooby-Doo and just about every fictional detective in history!

Q: Good luck with everything!

Thanks so much!