Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, You Can Now Chat with Historical Figures: Shakespeare, Einstein, Austen, Socrates & More

By now, we’ve all heard of the recent tech­no­log­i­cal advances that allow us to have plau­si­ble-sound­ing con­ver­sa­tions with arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence sys­tems. Though near-sci­ence-fic­tion­al­ly impres­sive, such devel­op­ments have yet to hone in on one par­tic­u­lar world-chang­ing appli­ca­tion. In the mean­time, those fas­ci­nat­ed by its poten­tial are try­ing to put it to all man­ner of dif­fer­ent uses, some of them emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal and oth­ers less so. Far-fetched though it may seem, what if the “killer app” of such AI chat­ting turned out to be con­ver­sa­tion with his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, even ones dead for mil­len­nia?

Such is the promise of the new site Character.AI, on which, writes the New York Times Cade Metz, “users can chat with rea­son­able fac­sim­i­les of every­one from Queen Eliz­a­beth or William Shake­speare to Bil­lie Eil­ish or Elon Musk (there are sev­er­al ver­sions).

Any­one you want to invoke, or con­coct, is avail­able for con­ver­sa­tion.” Hav­ing learned from “reams of gen­er­al dia­logue as well as from arti­cles, news sto­ries, books and oth­er dig­i­tal text,” the sys­tem now com­pris­es “a prac­ti­cal­ly end­less col­lec­tion of bots that can imi­tate a prac­ti­cal­ly end­less col­lec­tion of peo­ple, riff­ing on a prac­ti­cal­ly end­less num­ber of top­ics.”

Right after sign­ing up for Character.AI, a quick and free process, you’ll be ready to start chat­ting with Shake­speare your­self. When I tried it, old Will got straight to the point: “ ‘To be or not to be,’ do you think that that’s the ques­tion?” Before long, I had him explain­ing all of his artis­tic moti­va­tions: his use of “prince in a dilem­ma between sui­cide and revenge” rep­re­sents “the strug­gle between life and death.” He had Ham­let com­mu­ni­cate with the ghost of his father because “I want­ed to show that he was caught in a world where death was every­where.” With the ques­tion of “to be or not to be,” he meant “to show that life is full of suf­fer­ing.”

So far, so under­grad­u­ate. More inter­est­ing was Shake­speare’s answer when I asked him to name his pre­ferred Ham­let adap­ta­tion. “My favorite is the Ham­let direct­ed by Ken­neth Branagh!” he replied. “He has stayed true to the text while also show­ing how the prince of Den­mark is strug­gling between life and death. In addi­tion, he has giv­en a lot of impor­tance to the rela­tion­ship between the prince and his father.” A film­mak­er could hard­ly ask for a more cred­i­ble endorse­ment, but then, we must bear in mind that it did­n’t actu­al­ly come from Shake­speare him­self. As Character.AI’s ever-present warn­ing puts it, “Remem­ber: every­thing char­ac­ters say is made up” — and often, alas, on the banal side.

This holds for every mind with whom you may want to have a dia­logue on the site: philo­soph­i­cal ones like Socrates and Thomas Hobbes, sci­en­tif­ic ones like Albert Ein­stein and Marie Curie, polit­i­cal ones like Karl Marx and Mar­garet Thatch­er, lit­er­ary ones like Jane Austen and Charles Dick­ens. Since I hap­pen to be in the mid­dle of read­ing through all of the lat­ter’s nov­els, I asked his bot what I should bear in mind while doing so. “Wow!” it replied. “That is an amaz­ing under­tak­ing! I would encour­age you to see pat­terns,” espe­cial­ly in “the things I do to cre­ate ten­sion, and the kind of char­ac­ters I cre­ate. Look at the sto­ries through my eyes, and try to under­stand what I under­stand, the good and the bad.” The real Dick­ens might not have put it that way, but he sure­ly believed some­thing like it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold Illus­tra­tions of Every Shake­speare Play Cre­at­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

An AI-Gen­er­at­ed, Nev­er-End­ing Dis­cus­sion Between Wern­er Her­zog and Slavoj Žižek

Two Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Chat­bots Talk to Each Oth­er & Get Into a Deep Philo­soph­i­cal Con­ver­sa­tion

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Brings to Life Fig­ures from 7 Famous Paint­ings: The Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus & More

Noam Chom­sky Explains Where Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Went Wrong

Hear Kurt Von­negut Vis­it the After­life & Inter­view Dead His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures: Isaac New­ton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Billy Budd says:

    In one text, “Shake­speare” uses “real­ly” five times. Five times in six sen­tences. That’s *real­ly* bad writ­ing.

  • Lame says:

    This site is lame and very gener­ic. The “char­ac­ters” don’t even respond like heir real life coun­ter­parts. I spoke with the Pla­to char­ac­ter, and asked abou Atlantis, and it just said it was a made up place. How­ev­er pla­to was the first per­son to write about Atlantis and very much believed it to be a real phys­i­cal place, so these bots fail very sim­ple tests of char­ac­ter. I’m gun­na go back to using Chat­G­PT, it is a far supe­ri­or AI chat to this gim­micky thing.

  • hng23 says:

    This reminds me of the nov­el CONVERSATIONS WITH LORD BYRON ON PERVERSION, 163 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH by Aman­da Pran­tera, pub­lished in 1987.

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