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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Oct. 14, 2020

Advance Copy

For this column, NASW book editor Lynne Lamberg asks NASW authors to tell how they came up with the idea for their book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. She also asks what they wish they had known before they began working on their book, what they might do differently the next time, and what tips they can offer aspiring authors. She then edits the A part of that Q&A to produce the author reports you see here.

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