Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.


11 thoughts on “Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?”

    1. Well, Becky, you can be my reading robot. Thanks for those links. It’s sad that Verne hasn’t been treated better in the English speaking world. That literary reception link answered one of my questions. I had come across a version of Journey to the Center of the Earth with different character names and wondered why.

      I have two unread biographies of Verne. I guess I need to read them.

  1. For the first time in many decades, I happen to be reading some Jules Verne: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. (His second novel, I think with the translation done by a Verne scholar.) I forgot how much he loves to go on fits of taxonomy or massive infodumps. In this one, one character has an encyclopedic knowledge — which he’s more than willing to share — of Arctic exploration.

    I’ve noticed, as a whole, the internet seems to have a paucity of info on the history of scientific theories, just current thinking. Could just be a false impression from a few searches though.

    I have a couple of books around the house on the history of hollow earth thinking, but I haven’t read them yet.

  2. Most of the best SF authors have only a very meagre knowledge of science/physics.I never thought H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine” were feasible,but I never really liked them,because I never liked his style.I haven’t read Verne,but you seem to like him,so you must see something in his work that’s lasting,so why does it matter so much about it’s scientific plausibility? The other authors I’ve alluded too,are a case in point.If you gave your book to an automated machine to read,it wouldn’t see what you do in it,and would probably say it was unscientific.

    1. Not so much, George. Google is a lot like the archetype of the dumb blonde girlfriend who is only interested in shopping and celebrity gossip. Like Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” such a person/entity is wasting a lot of processing power. Google is not interested in any history but your purchasing history, or in providing information other than the ads it wants to serve you. It is motivated to provide and promote the average, not the obscure and interesting. Other results are merely incidental. So no, don’t expect original conversation from Google or the equivalent.

    2. I have Alexa to talk to. She’s not much of a conversationalist. However, she answers questions much better than Siri. I asked her recently about PKD books and she told me there were 89, and then mentioned Dick’s most famous titles. I’m thinking PKD didn’t write 89 different books, and so her number might be all editions. But still she knew some stuff.

  3. This was the version that I read sometime in the 1960’s – the 1956 Ace paperback, with a “modern” translation by Willis T. Bradley.

    I still have this paperback and never sampled a different version. I’m also still quite fond of the charming 1959 James Mason movie (Arlene Dahl was a worthy addition to the party). But now I’m wondering what the differences might have been compared to the Malleson translation.

    The particular edition can certainly matter a great deal – I had already read a couple of abridged versions of “The Count of Monte Cristo” before finding a two volume unabridged translation in a college library. The difference was night and day – the abridged versions left out whole subplots and characters. – and not the same ones from one abridged version to another. Apparently the 1871 edition of “Journey” significantly re-wrote the original text. For an extreme example of this practice, look up the history of “The Swiss Family Robinson”. There doesn’t even seem to be an official/original version of that book.

    Another “hollow earth” story that I enjoyed was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Pellucidar story, “At the Earth’s Core”. A later book in the series incorporated the notion of a polar entrance to the interior world – via airship. Even when it was first published in 1914, the premise was a crackpot theory. Still a cracking tale though, and contains one of the most horrific literary scenes in my memory – the Mahars’ feeding pool.

    1. I used to see that version of A Journey to the Center of the Earth when shopping for used paperbacks in the 1960s. And I used to read Burroughs back then too, including the Pellucidar series. Was Burroughs the last writer to use this idea?

      1. The Warlord comic book series (DC comics) in the 1970s and 1980s used the hollow earth with curved openings at the poles. This idea gets more ridiculous as time goes on but even in Verne’s time it was not very scientific. You see, as you get lower into the earth, the outer shell you are no longer in has forces that counter each other. So it’s net effect on your weight is nil. So if you could keep going down the the center you would find yourself weightless. So the idea that the shell would hold you as firmly as on the surface of earth is bunk. You would just float inside the shell. This was known shortly after Newton – all you have to do is cancel out the force vectors as you get below a shell. So it would have been known in Verne’s time. That might be why this story was published in a boy’s magazine first.

      2. So hollow earth was still alive in the 1970s and 1980s? Wow, when will that idea get too old to use?

        I really wish I had some way to understand the common mindset of people in the past.

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