I can’t believe I’m here, I thought to myself as I walked through a German university campus. The side of one old stone building caught my eye: it was covered in vines that were brilliant green and red on that late October day. As I continued walking towards my bus from a building that had formerly been used as barracks during World War II, I knew that my master’s studies would be challenging, but I was where I really wanted to be and I knew it. I thought that my time in Europe would be a two-year adventure, but it turned into seven years across two countries, three universities, resulting in three degrees. Of course, during that time my family and I traveled as much as possible!
Though I was born in the U.S., I never really went outside of the Pacific Northwest during my entire childhood. That changed after I spent an extended period of time in the Tohoku Region of Japan. Learning Japanese was life changing for me. It unlocked a latent part of my brain and lit a fire in me that I didn’t know humans could feel. The fire was not just for Japanese, it was for the language learning process itself. I knew that if I were to feed the fire, I would not just travel, but I would need to spend more time immersed in other cultures soaking up everything I could about how other people lived—in particular, their languages.
While working on my bachelor’s degree in computer science, I found a way to marry computation and natural human language; using simple computer languages as a means to process more complex, ambiguous natural ones. I knew I needed to further my education which led me to the multilingual paradise: Europe, starting with Germany, then to France for masters’ work, then back to Germany for PhD-level education. For my PhD work I focused on the meaning of words, and how linguistic meaning could be learned, represented, and used on a computational device. That meant delving into fields of scientific inquiry relating to language including linguistics, neuroscience, psychology and psycholinguistics, child development, and philosophy.
When I started my PhD studies in October 2011, Apple’s Siri had just been released. It was the first viable large-scale voice-based assistant. People thought it was kind of funny at first, but then as it improved over the years people started to use it for more complex tasks. Fast forward 12 years and now we have ChatGPT which can write impressive essays and usable computer code. As artificial intelligence (so far, the narrow kind) permeates more and more of our daily lives, and as the medium of communication with computers moves from mice and keyboards to the medium that humans use with each other—spoken and written language—we have some big questions to ask about the settings of using intelligent technology, the implications of treating technology as if it were a kind of person, and if we can trust it with what it learns about us.
The Sendai Test is a book series that explores some of these questions. What would it take to properly and fully evaluate a system that has human-level intelligence? Is society ready to have androids walking among us? My own research frames language as a big part of all of those questions, though the way we look at language might not lead us to the right answers (ask ChatGPT if it has seen an apple; its answer might tell you something about language and meaning). As a professor, I still research language and computation, AI, and now I use robots because if I have learned anything from reading all those scientific articles on child development and neuroscience, it seems like a body might just be required. The books explore that too.
I wrote these books as fiction because I wanted them to be accessible to younger readers who are growing up in this complex world. Even though the books revolve around intelligence and the meaning of language, there is also meaning that is derived from our relationships with others, places we’ve been, and memories we have. I wanted Europe and Asia to be the setting for the story because those are places that have deep meaning for me (I think I’ve seen enough movies that are centered in big U.S. cities!), but also because I think the way European countries and Japan view AI is more realistic than the generally held American views. Some places I name in the books like Sendai (Japan), Nancy (France), and Herford (Germany). Other places are left unmentioned, though readers may recognize them.
For example, to get to a city named Herford on a train, the main character has to ride through a sizable city, but never learns its name. That’s actually a play on a (still ongoing?) joke that the city of Bielefeld where he needed to pass through (and where I earned my PhD) doesn’t actually exist. My family and I lived in nearby Herford during that time and it is truly our adopted German hometown. The square with the “geese as if in flight” water fountain highlighted in the books—and makes up the cover of the first book—is called Gänsemark. It is one of my most favorite places in the world.
Another location that is meaningful is the town along the river that is left unnamed in one of the books, partly because the main character forgot it existed. On a very long drive from our home to visit family one day several years ago, my three young kids needed a break from sitting in the car, so I exited the Autobahn and followed signs until we drove along the Mosel River and found an enclosed playground near the river. No one else was there on that beautiful, sunny day. After the kids started playing, I sat on a park bench and snapped a picture of the stunning view (see above photo). That specific playground became the place where we stopped every time we made that drive.
Now I live near Boise, Idaho (U.S.), but I still find time to study languages (Boise is home to a very large Basque population—what an amazing language and people!) and when there aren’t pandemics under way, I try to find ways to visit new places. I am who I am because I have spent about 9 years of my life abroad and I’m sure my time abroad is not yet over.
Casey (C R) Kennington is a professor of Computer Science at Boise State University. He just released The Sendai Test, a series of three novels, at the end of last year. He currently lives in Boise with his wife and five children.
Please visit http://www.thesendaitest.com or click on the book images above for more information.