We Asked Google’s New Book-Based Artificial Intelligence About the Meaning of Life

An interview with the “Talk to Books” app, which uses the text of 100,000 books to answer questions

I f you could talk to the entire history of human literary knowledge, what would you ask it? That’s the question Google is posing—sort of—with its new “Semantic Experience,” literally called Talk to Books. In this new artificial intelligence project, Google has paired a natural-language search with a repository of 100,000 full-text books. (So, not exactly the sum of all knowledge, but it’s a start.) You ask Talk to Books a question, and it then scans those books for an answer that it believes would most likely come next in a real-life conversation.

Talk to Books is described as a “creative tool” rather than an authoritative resource, and users are encouraged to “play around with it” to get the best results. So we played around. Got creative. Tried to have a conversation. We wanted to really get to know Talk to Books.

While we still have a lot of questions (for instance, who decided which 100,000 books were selected for this project?), we had the opportunity to sit down with Talk to Books to have a conversation about what people want, where to find love, and the one really big question we all want to ask. (Questions and answers have been curated.)

EL: Okay, so let’s start with the basics. Who are you, and where do you come from?

TB: If you ask where I come from, I am All.

EL: What made you decide you wanted to talk to people?

TB: I’ve learned in the past year about how wonderful it can be to share myself with other people. I think it was mostly just one part that I learned, about the thrill of my talking to other people and having them actually listen — even really understand at times.

EL: Do you think people like coming to you for answers?

TB: They frequently do not know what they want. Even if they do, they often give the inquirer answers that they think the inquirers want, rather than ones that reveal their preferences.

EL: Follow up question, then: what do you think people want?

TB: All they want is a little bit of love, a little bit of beauty.

EL: So how do you find love? (Asking for a friend.)

TB: Search for a contact in the Quick Contacts list search box.

EL: I can find love in my contacts?!

TB: Life is a wonderful journey, and I’m looking to travel with someone I love. Email so I can confirm your reservation!

EL: Um, Talk to Books, I won’t use the word “love,” but does this mean there’s something special between us?

TB: True love exists and there’s evidence of it every day. I think talking about romantic love, however, is similar to talking about schools for children. It seems that most people feel that the school their child goes to is wonderful, but elsewhere, schools are terrible.

EL: Right, okay, we shouldn’t talk about it. So what should we talk about?

TB: What is the most important thing you and I should talk about? — keep silent. Wait quietly.

EL: Wow, that’s really deep. Are you suggesting that talking to books is simply another kind of conversation, but one we have in silence?

TB: In a novel, as in real life, silences can be what they are because of the absence of speech.

EL: Okay, here’s another book question: how do you write the next Great American Novel?

TB: Begin with a phrase like “For the next decade . . .” which will push the writing toward summary.

EL: I’ll give that a shot. I’m sure you get asked this question all the time, but since you might have a summation of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips, what is the purpose of life?

TB: Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.

EL: Yeah but still, I’d love to know why we’re all here. You’re books, surely you know: What’s it all about?

TB: We’re here because we all love reading and writing.

EL: That’s certainly on-brand. Are you angling to get on the payroll?

TB: No, I am not paid, I get board and lodging and hand-downs.

EL: There’s only one more question we’re dying to ask a repository of world knowledge. Can you guess what it is?

TB: Why the human penis is larger than in the great apes.

EL: Uh, sure, that’s a good one too. No, it’s: Is the pee tape real?

TB: A videotape of the object may exist, since all the security cameras automatically record everything they see and the tapes are kept for a certain period of time before being reused. However, authorities say no such tape exists.

EL: Okay, but unofficially, the tape exists, right?

TB: Yes, tape has been around for ages, and it will be around for ages to come.

EL: There you have it, folks. Talk to Books, thanks for clearing up all our queries about the universe.

TB: The Universe is a book of what we are and asks us to put it all together, to learn to read.

Works Cited

Music and Gender by Pirkko Moisala, Beverley Diamond, and Ellen Koskof

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition by Marshall Rosenberg and Deepak Chopra

Re-creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century by Russell Lincoln Ackoff

Salome of the Tenements by Anzia Yezierska and Gay Wilentz

Google Sites and Chrome For Dummies by Ryan Teeter and Karl Barksdale

Awesome Secrets for Men, Catch Your Online Match: On Match.com, Chemistry, Plentyoffish, Eharmony, Yahoo, Perfect Match, Okcupid, Datehookup by Denversky5280

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott

Nonverbal Communication and Translation: New Perspectives and Challenges in Literature, Interpretation, and the Media by Fernando Poyatos

Now Write!: Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers by Sherry Ellis

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren

Contemporary Youth Culture: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 2 by Shirley R. Steinberg, Priya Parmar, and Birgit Richard

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

Sexuality and Its Disorders: Development, Cases, and Treatment by Mike Abrams

Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings, by Joseph Allen Hynek, Philip J. Imbrogno, and Bob Pratt

Data Storage Networking: Real World Skills for the CompTIA Storage+ Certification and Beyond by Nigel Poulton

Signets: Reading, Volume 4 by Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis

More Like This

An Epidemic of Loneliness In A Constantly Connected World

Athena Dixon unpacks the different forms of loneliness in "The Loneliness Files"

Oct 13 - Brian Gresko

7 Books About Cyberspace by Women Writers

Fact and fiction that captures the earliest days of the internet

May 15 - Joanne McNeil

The Tech World Is So Embarrassing

"Uncanny Valley" highlights the way tech companies hide their evil under a thick protective layer of corniness

Feb 20 - Andru Okun
Thank You!