The Love Letter Generator That Foretold ChatGPT - JSTOR Daily (2024)

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In the early 1950s, small, peculiar love letters were pinned up on the walls of the computing lab at the University of Manchester.

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Two of them published by Christopher Strachey read:

Darling Sweetheart
You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully

Honey Dear
My sympathetic affection beautifully attracts your affectionate enthusiasm. You are my loving adoration: my breathless adoration. My fellow feeling breathlessly hopes for your dear eagerness. My lovesick adoration cherishes your avid ardour.
Yours wistfully

These are strange love letters, for sure. And the history behind them is even stranger; examples of the world’s first computer-generated writing, they’re signed by MUC, the acronym for the Manchester University Computer. In 1952, decades before ChatGPT started to write students’ essays, before OpenAI’s computer generated writing was integrated into mainstream media outlets, two gay men—Alan Turing and Christopher Strachey—essentially invented AI writing. Alongside Turing, Strachey worked on several experiments with Artificial Intelligence: a computer that could sing songs, one of the world’s first computer games, and an algorithm to write gender-neutral mash notes that screamed with longing.

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Turing and Strachey had been friendly since the mid-1930s, during their days at King’s College, Cambridge. Turing was a graduate student, working on his masters in mathematics while Strachey was an undergrad also studying math. Turing was celebrated as a young brilliant mind, invited to Princeton to complete his PhD and then recruited to join code-breakers at the famous Bletchley Park. Strachey struggled in school. His grades were poor. He didn’t seem particularly dedicated to his classes. He wasn’t admitted to any graduate research programs, but he continued to study. Despite his academic struggles, he proved himself to be a brilliant computer programmer. He went on to work as one of the most prolific, creative, and innovative computer scientists of the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1950s, the friendship between Turing and Strachey deepened and evolved into a collaboration. I see flirtatious undertones in their collaborations, but we have no evidence to suggest that they enjoyed a romantic relationship. They exchanged letters, many now lost, hashing out programming problems and articulating their hopes for the future of artificial intelligence. Strachey wrote Turing with updates about the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) machine he was working on at the National Physical Lab, the very same machine that Turing helped design before moving to Manchester to work on the “Baby,” the world’s first stored-program computer.

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Strachey was limited by the ACE machine that he had access to in the National Physical Lab. He needed a more powerful machine to run his computer game. So Turing invited him to visit the Manchester Computing Lab and the Mark 1, which he would do on long weekends away from London. The Mark 1 was one of the largest computers operating in the world, second only perhaps to the ENIAC financed by the US Army Ordnance Corps. Remembering his first night working on it in Manchester, Strachey said, “I sat in front of this enormous machine with four or five rows of twenty switches and things, in a room that felt like the control room of a battleship.”

That very night, Strachey programmed the machine to play a song, likely the first ever example of its kind. Soon thereafter, he wrote code for the world’s first computer game. Tic-tac-toe was too simple, and chess too complex, so he decided to program the computer on draughts, otherwise known as checkers. At the time, it was the longest computer program in existence.

Turing and Strachey shared a passion for finding original ways of exploring machine intelligence. They are the field’s most influential queer figures, though they were not alone. Jacob Gaboury, professor of media studies at UC Berkeley, has documented the extensive queer community in the history of computing, including, alongside Turing and Strachey, Robin Gandy, Norman Routledge, and Peter Landin. In their letters, these men discuss all manner of relationships from romantic to professional to platonic. Gay folks tend to know how to find their chosen family. For Turing and Strachey, that included gay community members at King’s College, as well as those who studied mathematics or computers more generally.

On May 15, 1951, Turing delivered a short radio broadcast titled “Can Digital Computers Think?” for the BBC Home Service. It was a question both he and Strachey were exploring. In his lecture, Turing asks listeners to imagine the computer as a mechanical brain, similar to but not exactly like a human brain. A computer can learn, it can be trained, and with time, Turing said, it can exhibit its own unique form of intelligence. He noted one particular difficulty: the computer can do only what the human programmer stipulates. It lacks free will.

“To behave like a brain seems to involve free will,” Turing continues, “but the behavior of a digital computer, when it has been programmed, is completely determined.”

To solve this problem, he suggests a trick. The computer could use a roulette wheel feature to select variables randomly. Then, the computer would appear to make something original and new by adding in a touch of randomness.

Strachey was listening to the lecture, and wrote Turing in excitement. Turing’s radio lecture was, Strachey wrote, “most stimulating and, I suspect to many people provocative, but it fits extraordinarily well with what I have been thinking on the subject.”

In 1951, Turing and Strachey collaborated to program the Mark 1 to create the world’s first computer generated music—”God Save the Queen,” “Ba Ba Black Sheep,” and Glen Miller’s jazz classic “In The Mood”—for a room full of chatting and giggling onlookers. In a letter from the early 1950s, Turing and Strachey discussed training the computer like parents discussing a child. They wrote about themselves as mothers, and showed affection for the computers they were working on.

Still, they remained vexed by the challenges of endowing a machine with free will. To be sure, the computer singing songs and playing games was a demonstration of a machine making choices but making them within a predictable set of options—free will with limits. (Arguably, free will in humans follows the same model, but the number of options is exponentially higher.) Taking up Turing’s suggestion of using a roulette wheel to inject originality into the computer’s decision-making, Strachey used a random number generator programmed by Turing to write the Mark 1’s love letter generator. This program randomly selected words to fit into an already-made template; while this wasn’t exactly total free choice, the resulting letters were highly original.

Here’s how they made the love letter generator. It’s rather simple. They designed a template for each of the letters to follow:

Generate Salutation 1 and 2,
Do this 5 times:
Randomly generate one of the following templates:
1. “You are my” Adjective Noun
2. “My” Adjective(optional) Noun Adverb(optional)
Verb, Your Adjective(optional) Noun
Generate “Yours” Adverb, “MUC” (Strachey, “M.U.C Love
Letter Generator”)

Like a game of Mad Libs, the template gave each letter structure. Then a selection from the word bank would be inserted to fill in the blank. The word bank included a rich grab-bag of sentimental, saccharine, and adoring language. The salutations options likely included terms such as “dearest,” “fanciful,” and “honey.”

The program forsook specific names for gender neutral pet names, like “chickpea,” “moppet,” and “sweetheart,” and included adjectives conveying longing: “breathless,” “burning,” “covetous,” “craving,” “eager.”

The verbs did the heavy lifting. “Lusts after,” “pants for,” “hunger,” “clings,” and “adores” infused desire into these clunky, formulaic missives. Nowadays, anyone can craft a love letter using Strachey’s program, thanks to programmers who have recreated it online and whose recreation informs what we think we know of Strachey’s original code.

For Strachey and Turing, writing love letters was arguably a starry-eyed benchmark of intelligence. It intrigued them, hinting of a future in which a computer could write original prose. In the 1954 article about this program linked in this story’s opening paragraphs, Strachey explained the program’s “simple trick” that could yield “unexpected and interesting results.” That was what he and Turing sought; they both wanted to find out if a computer could create something that no human ever would. Originality was a key goal for machine intelligence, as they saw it. Indeed, in Turing’s famous 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” he included “do something really new” as a vital criterion for intelligence and championed the machine’s brain, observing, “Machines take me by surprise with great frequency,”

Yet the love-letter generator was more than a theoretical and delightful experiment with machine intelligence. It had a deeply personal dimension, as both men were gay in an era when hom*osexuality was criminalized. In the computer-generated love letters as well as what we know about the personal letters between Turing and Strachey, they expressed perceptible coded queer desire, at least in the view of this reader. What they felt as queer men was, arguably, sublimated into the computer. If Turing and Strachey couldn’t be open about their desires, they’d program a computer that could do it for them.

With these love letters, we get Turing’s “something new.” They are that, and they are strange. In some ways, of course, it’s a trick, a random collection of words that, in their own way, build something strangely beautiful, if far less than poetic genius. But they don’t have to be poetry to nevertheless teem with longing and generate infinite possibilities for expressing sexual desire, for public declarations of love.

While these men were busy in computing labs, England was becoming increasingly hostile towards gay men. Being gay was outlawed with the Buggery Act of 1533; the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 further criminalized any act of “gross indecency.” Starting around 1945, hom*osexuality was discussed not as an individual failing, but as a social problem that could be studied and also solved. Then, in 1951, the newly appointed Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, led a wide-spread campaign to punish gay men and was reported to have a “single-minded determination to harass all hom*osexuals.” In 1952, the year after Maxwell Fyfe was appointed, the number of prosecuted gay men skyrocketed to 5,443 men (compared to just over 1,000 a decade earlier). According to some sources, that same year Strachey, using Turing’s random number generator, created his love-letter writing proxy. It is also the year Turing was prosecuted for “gross indecency,” following a fling with a younger gentleman.

“I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have unusually rated it at 10:1 against,” he confided in his friend Norman Routledge. To Routledge, Turing foretold, “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.”

After his conviction, Turing agreed to undergo chemical castration in order to avoid serving time in prison.

What happened to Turing and the implementation more generally of these anti-gay laws spread fear and distrust within England’s queer community. That was precisely their point. Pressed further into the closet, gay men had no liberty to express desire openly. Instead, in Turing and Strachey’s case, they turned to a computer to express it for them.

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The Love Letter Generator That Foretold ChatGPT - JSTOR Daily (2024)
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