Journal tags: steam




Picture someone tediously going through a spreadsheet that someone else has filled in by hand and finding yet another error.

“I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!” they cry.

The year was 1821 and technically the spreadsheet was a book of logarithmic tables. The frustrated cry came from Charles Babbage, who channeled his frustration into a scheme to create the world’s first computer.

His difference engine didn’t work out. Neither did his analytical engine. He’d spend his later years taking his frustrations out on street musicians, which—as a former busker myself—earns him a hairy eyeball from me.

But we’ve all been there, right? Some tedious task that feels soul-destroying in its monotony. Surely this is exactly what machines should be doing?

I have a hunch that this is where machine learning and large language models might turn out to be most useful. Not in creating breathtaking works of creativity, but in menial tasks that nobody enjoys.

Someone was telling me earlier today about how they took a bunch of haphazard notes in a client meeting. When the meeting was done, they needed to organise those notes into a coherent summary. Boring! But ChatGPT handled it just fine.

I don’t think that use-case is going to appear on the cover of Wired magazine anytime soon but it might be a truer glimpse of the future than any of the breathless claims being eagerly bandied about in Silicon Valley.

You know the way we no longer remember phone numbers, because, well, why would we now that we have machines to remember them for us? I’d be quite happy if machines did that for the annoying little repetitive tasks that nobody enjoys.

I’ll give you an example based on my own experience.

Regular expressions are my kryptonite. I’m rubbish at them. Any time I have to figure one out, the knowledge seeps out of my brain before long. I think that’s because I kind of resent having to internalise that knowledge. It doesn’t feel like something a human should have to know. “I wish to God these regular expressions had been calculated by steam!”

Now I can get a chatbot with a large language model to write the regular expression for me. I still need to describe what I want, so I need to write the instructions clearly. But all the gobbledygook that I’m writing for a machine now gets written by a machine. That seems fair.

Mind you, I wouldn’t blindly trust the output. I’d take that regular expression and run it through a chatbot, maybe a different chatbot running on a different large language model. “Explain what this regular expression does,” would be my prompt. If my input into the first chatbot matches the output of the second, I’d have some confidence in using the regular expression.

A friend of mine told me about using a large language model to help write SQL statements. He described his database structure to the chatbot, and then described what he wanted to select.

Again, I wouldn’t use that output without checking it first. But again, I might use another chatbot to do that checking. “Explain what this SQL statement does.”

Playing chatbots off against each other like this is kinda how machine learning works under the hood: generative adverserial networks.

Of course, the task of having to validate the output of a chatbot by checking it with another chatbot could get quite tedious. “I wish to God these large language model outputs had been validated by steam!”

Sounds like a job for machines.


I’ve always thought that Brighton has a lot of steampunk appeal. Quite apart from the potential for criminal mastermind lairs within the , there are a whole slew of wonderful inventions from the mind of .

The is still in use today. The , alas, is not. And while still stands in the centre of town, its moving parts have been disabled (due to noise complaints and damage to the structural integrity):

The hydraulically operated copper sphere moved up and down a 16-foot (4.9 m) metal mast every hour, based on electrical signals transmitted from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

But even with all this steampunk history, I was still surprised to read the story of Alpha the robot on Paleo-Future:

During the autumn of 1932 a group of curious onlookers assembled in Brighton, England to see inventor Harry May’s latest invention, Alpha the robot. The mechanical man was controlled by verbal commands and sat in a chair silently while May carefully placed a gun in Alpha’s hand.

It all goes horribly awry according to contemporary reports, doubtless exaggerated. I, for one, welcome our new metal overlords. has more details on Alpha, including Time magazine’s account of its 1934 tour of America:

When commanded, the robot lowered its arm, raised the other, lowered it, turned its head from side to side, opened and closed its prognathous jaw, sat down. Then Impresario May asked Alpha a question:

“How old are you?”

From the robot’s interior a cavernous Cockney voice responded:

“Fourteen years.”

May: What do you weigh?

Alpha: One ton.

A dozen other questions and answers followed, some elaborately facetious. When May inquired what the automaton liked to eat, it responded with a minute-long discourse on the virtues of toast made with Macy’s automatic electric toaster.

David Buckley has more details including a spread from Practical Mechanics explaining Alpha’s inner workings.