Christoph Droesser: When Things Talk to Us - Voice Assistants, Computers as Authors & Social Bots

When Things Talk to Us

When Things Talk to Us


Wenn die Dinge mit uns reden
von Sprachassistenten,
dichtenden Computern und Social Bots
Christoph Droesser
Dudenverlag, Germany, Oct. 12, 2020, $17 (16 EUR)
ISBN-10: 3411742259; ISBN-13: 978-3411742257

Droesser reports:

Every German knows The Duden. This dictionary is the de facto standard for German spelling, the go-to reference in schools, newsrooms and Scrabble competitions. As a side business to its line of reference books, its publisher, Dudenverlag, started publishing nonfiction books several years ago.

Dudenverlag approached me through my agent in the fall of 2018. They were interested in publishing “something about voice assistants and AI.” I thought it a great idea to write about computer linguistics for a publisher whose main focus is language. I didn’t want to limit myself to the technology but rather, to take a broader view. I wrote a 2-page “proposal” that we revised a couple of times before I got to work.

Christoph Droesser, photo by Liesa Johannssen

Christoph Droesser, photo by Liesa Johannssen

The book’s core idea: for the first time in human history, we are faced with non-human “beings” with which we can converse. We talk to them, and they talk back. The book starts with historic efforts to make machines talk, introduces the famous arguments about language and intelligence by Turing and Searle, and quickly dives into AI, Deep Learning and language models like GPT-3. I talk about Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri and explore how algorithms write fake news. I decided not to cover machine translation since that basically facilitates the conversation between humans, not between human and machine. The field is developing at a mind-boggling speed. Most of my references are from the last two years.

The book is pretty compact (160 pages); I wrote it in three months. My writing period started just as San Francisco shut down because of the coronavirus. I was able to focus on the book and on my 9-year-old son who had to stay home. I did most of my research online and conducted interviews over Skype and Zoom.

For now, the book is available only in German. About me: I was a long time editor for the German weekly Die Zeit before I moved to San Francisco six years ago. I joined NASW two years ago since I thought I should team up with colleagues where I live, not where my stories appear.

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Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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