We’re always lost and that’s why it’s fun - Taiwan’s Digital Minister talks about how to live in the age of A.I.

A Conversation with Audrey Tang (Part2)
Photo: © Depositphotos/pogonici


Ueda Humans get AI (artificial intelligence) to do things AI can do. If we continue down this path, what would ultimately be left for humans to do? That's my question. What should be kept for humans and what should be delegated to AI? What do you think?

Audrey I think my main thought here is to get lost and feel the vast lostness. There is an idea in Mandarin - I will call it “Unyen” or without thought. But is doesn’t really mean that you don’t think about anything. It means “revery”, that you remain in a situation of possibilities without being constrained by any particular possibility. And this kind of revery, I think, is what humans should think about.

Note: The word “Unyen” means "without thoughts or delusions”. It is pronounced "woo-nien," but it does not mean "envious”.

Audrey Tang

Audrey Tang, Taiwan's Digital Minister, was born in 1981 in Taipei. She started learning Perl at the age of 12. She dropped out of middle school at 15 and founded several start-ups as a programmer. At 19, she established her own software company in Silicon Valley, U.S.A. In 2005, she became widely known for her contribution to the development of Perl 6 (now known as Raku). She joined Apple in 2014, where she worked on high-level AI projects such as Siri. In October 2016, she joined the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) of Tsai Ing-wen, where she became the Digital Minister (cabinet member) in charge of digital affairs, working across departments to promote the digitization of government and politics. In 2019, she was named one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy. She is the author of Audrey Tang: The Future of Digital and AI (President Publishing). (Photo: Yao Chiaomei)

UedaThat really makes sense. In fact, in one of my novels, I wrote about what you said now as an answer to the question "what should humans do once AI undertakes most of our activities?" The answer was that humans can continue to think, and maybe in the end this is what we are left with. Dwelling on this problem time and again is what keeps me writing novels.

Note: The novel in which Ueda wrote about “Keep on thinking" is The Planets (included in The Sun and the Planets published by Shinchosha). Below is the quote, even though it is slightly long.

"That's it. Listen to me carefully. What I'm about to tell you is exactly what you've forgotten.” Frederick Carson's narrowed his eyes slightly, as if he was amused by my reaction. "You know what? You are the personification of the dream of the sea of flesh, the very thought of that disgusting lump of meat. And you are now beginning to wonder, after a long period of stability, whether it is possible to come to a conclusion from a different angle. One conclusion has already been reached, and there's nothing more you can do about it. That's why you, or to put it more bluntly, the human race, has decided to return to individuals once again. That's what you're trying to forget, that you're the representative of the human dream. You are now trying to reconstruct the concept of humanity from the memory of those submerged into the sea of flesh. What is the lost individual? What is life? What is the other? What is time? Invisible, right? The ones you feel you don't understand. But once, when humanity was plain, everyone was like that, except you. That's how you examine each and everything, trying to come back from the sea of flesh to be a human being. The mysteries of life, the facts of natural science, the essence of art, the true nature of love, and all the theorems we discussed earlier are all in my hands, so you can safely immerse yourself in the individual. We will all become invisible, individuals in the original sense of the word. Once the conclusion of the sea of flesh in the void has been reached, if a conclusion can be drawn that goes beyond that, I can always use the stock of truth on my side to dissolve the sea of flesh and reconstruct it into an ideal being. So take your time, do it again and again. All you have to do is immerse yourself in the individual and the present...

Takahiro Ueda

Takahiro Ueda was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1979. After graduating from the Faculty of Law at Waseda University, he co-founded an IT company of which he is currently a board member. He made his debut as a writer of pure literature in 2013, winning the 45th Shincho New Writers Award for The Sun. In 2015, he won the 28th Yukio Mishima Award for My Lover, and in 2018, he won the 68th Art Encouragement Prize for New Talent from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for Tower and Gravity. In 2019, he won the 160th Akutagawa Award for Nimrod. He is the author of The Sun and the Planets, My Lover, A Friend from Another Country,Tower and Gravity, Nimrod, and Q. (Photo: Nikkei xTECH)

AudreyLike curiosity, interaction, common good. These are, of course, excellent answers. But what I described is more about what a good question is, like being in the situation of enjoying good questions without necessarily getting an answer in our lifetime. Of course we all know the true answer is 42, but there’s many other answers too.

Note: “42 is the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and all things," according to Douglas Adams in his science fiction book, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When asked to answer the ultimate question about life, the universe, and all things, the supercomputer took 7.5 million years to calculate the answer: “42”. Yoshiaki Sato, an American literature researcher and translator, pointed out that the "42" anecdote may be a parody of the scene in Kurt Vonnegut's novel The Demoness of Titan where he asks the computer the meaning of his existence. Incidentally, Ueda includes The Demoness of Titan among the books that influenced him.

UedaWhen you're tormented by your thoughts, it's painful, but it can also be fun.

AudreyYes, it’s fun to wander around. We are indeed wandering about. We are quite lost, actually I don’t know where this staircase leads to downstairs, I don’t know where this tree leads us to, we are lost.

This is a nature scenery with no context. So quite literally you are putting us in a wonderous lost place. But it’s fun. It’s beautiful.

Let’s get lost

Ueda I love to get lost too. When I travel, I have a destination in mind, but I don't have a fixed itinerary. I just go out and get lost. Are you like that?

AudreyI recently visited the Matterhorn mountain in Switzerland. It is a very high place, very difficult to climb. Certainly I’m not the sort of professional mountaineer to scale that mountain, but someone did that for me. They used a helicopter to, basically through a technology called Videogrammetry, captured all the different angles of the Matterhorn mountain.

Note: Videogrammetry is a technique for generating 3D models from moving images. It is also called photogrammetry.

(Photo: Yao Chiaomei)

I put on virtual reality glasses - the XR Space glasses, and enjoyed talking with someone in New York, I think an artist and curator for the New Museum, where we had this kind of chat. But not on a two-dimensional staircase, but rather just around the Swiss mountain of Matterhorn.

Note: XRSpace is a Taiwanese startup working on VR/AR (Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality) that has developed a headset-type VR device called XRSpace Mova.

It was extremely enjoyable because we didn’t know where we were going. We were just drifting on the air, but the mountain was breathtaking. It was there with us.

UedaSounds fantastic. Eight years ago, or maybe ten, I was wandering around on the last day of a trip to Turkey, with no particular destination in mind, when I noticed a ferry crossing the Bosphorus. I felt very inspired and wrote about the scene in my novel. If I had not jumped on the ferry I happened to see, that scene would never have been created.

If humans can afford to delegate tasks to AI, then maybe we will be able to spend more time getting lost, which is to continue to think about something for which there is no clear answer. But Audrey, when do you ever find the time to get lost in your busy schedule?

AudreyI actually do get lost every night, in my dreams. But actually not just in my dreams, I make sure that through VR tourism, I visit places that are real. The Matterhorn mountain is actually there and the International Space Station is actually there. So it’s not like I’m visiting purely fantastical places, but I do, of course, travel through the help of virtual reality.

I also travel by reading books. I recently just re-read The Silmarillion, J.R.R.Tolkien’s book. The book that is even more high fantasy than The Lord of the Rings. It is a story that came to pass before The Lord of the Rings, and it also took me back to “Middle earth”, and also the western sea and island and the great white tower. This is the form of travel.

Note: J.R.R. Tolkien is an English philologist, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion is a collection of chapters he wrote in the 1910s and was published in 1977. “Middle-earth” is a fictional world created by Tolkien, and is where The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion takes place.

The Silmarillion, the title of the book, means a very bright diamond with the live spirit within those diamonds. Those diamonds, I think, are like fiction, are like books. If you get into close distance, they capture some of the qualia, some of the original quality of feeling, where they came from.

And just by touching the diamond, if it is meant to you, then the light of the Silmarillion shines again in your mind, and that is like a form of travel.

Note: According to the story of The Silmarillion, the Silmarillion are jewels that contain light, which glows when exposed to other light. When touched by an evil person, it emits intense heat.

When getting lost becomes a habit, you get a bird’s eye view

UedaIs it like a VR attraction?

AudreyYes, and also the same kind of experience as getting lost. Because I really like J.R.R. Tolkien, who doesn’t have a moral to the story in The Silmarillion. He basically creates an epic, or a mythology, but there is no moral to the story. And that is the greatest kind of fiction.

UedaVR allows us to learn new things and travel to many different places. Audrey, even if you had the time, would you still prefer VR?

AudreyWell, I’ve been to many different places, like the Alcatraz prison. That’s one of the places I went to. I’ve also been to the back seat of a car, and sitting next to me, an escaped immigrant worker. She was fearing that her papers, which was confiscated by her employer, would make her someone of a lost identity. There was a lot of anxiety. So by putting myself in other people’s shoes, so to speak, it makes it easier after those experiences. When I read fiction, or nonfiction, based on those accounts, I feel as if it is my story. But before I had a VR experience, it’s other people’s story.

(Photo: Yao Chiaomei)

UedaI have a friend who is an actor, and he says that when you play different roles, you develop a bird's eye view of the world around you, and you feel like you’re looking at yourself from a distance, whilst you remain yourself at the same time.

As I talk with you, I understand that having a mindset to be able to enjoy things will become more and more important in the future. I think it's about how much you can enjoy the fact that you are lost. As a writer of pure literature, I describe, with irony, that getting lost is a form of "deliberately worrying" (laughs).

AudreyYes, I think if you feel lost frequently, if you get more lost every day, then that becomes a habit, and that is important because then you’ll have the mental capacity to feel all the sides to take, or kind of like the overview effect that you were describing.

UedaExactly. When I am writing a story, there is no answer. I don't know the answer while I’m writing, or even after I have finished the story. It’s only after I’ve written it and re-written it that I realize “yes, this is it”.

Getting lost can be fun, but it can also be very painful. I always have a deadline that I’ve promised to my editor, so there's always the uncertainty of whether I will be able to finish the book or not. It’s only recently that I’ve started to enjoy it.

How automated translation affects language

UedaDo you have any worries or problems that are not clear to you, or you are caught up in?

AudreyWell, for example, the very fact that we are connecting through an interpreter, my lack of proficiency in Nihongo (Japanese). This is rather painful.

It’s manageable because the interpreter is brilliant and almost in real time, but still, any synchronous interpretation, I am myself a simultaneous interpreter, always adds something and takes away something.

It’s called “lost in translation.” So not only is the meaning lost twice in our conversation, but also new meaning is found through our co-creator, the interpreter’s choice of words.

But I don’t know, I don’t have access to the Nihongo side of things. So this is of course a little bit frustrating. Of course this will motivate me to learn Nihongo obviously. But if you ask me the question, this is what I feel now.

UedaWhen it comes to languages, I am very interested in automatic translation. I believe that even in automatic translation, there will be some things that are left out. In the very end, I think that it will be the uniqueness of each language that will be amplified.

I wrote a short story, You lot, which was translated into English. In the story, there is a ghost. It is based on Kabuki and Joruri plays, and the ghost mumbles a phrase that all Japanese ghosts say when they appear, which is "Urameshiya”. This cannot be translated into English.

Note: You lot was written for a project called "Creating Stories from Around Japan," sponsored by the Japan Expo in 2020. This is an initiative to "extract the essence of culture and stories from various parts of Japan and to express them in short stories”. In the English version of You lot, the word "Urameshiya" is translated as "Wooooo!”

I think that the differences between languages become clearly visible when you look at the words that cannot be translated. Language is very close to the human psyche, so if you can grasp the language properly, you can understand the characteristics of the country, but even so, there are some things that cannot be translated. That's what makes it delightful.

On the other hand, in the future, when we think we are communicating fluently through automatic translation, it may be that we are only pretending to understand what’s happening on the surface. Can we shift ourselves in the direction of slowing down and savoring literature and poetry that is delicately created by words? That’s what crosses my mind lately.

Protecting languages used by a small number of people

UedaAudrey, what level do you think automated translation will reach? It may replace interpreters’ jobs, and as a writer, my fear is that automatic translation will overshadow languages that are only used by a small number of people, causing such languages to lose their individuality and become weaker.

AudreyBefore I became Digital Minister, one of the projects I worked on was called “Crowd Lexicography”, meaning people making dictionaries by their own. We worked with the Oxford University Press.

Note: Lexicography refers to the editing of dictionaries and the methods used to do so. Ms. Tang was a founding member of a startup before selling it in 2012, and then became an advisor to Apple and Oxford University Press, where she was involved in Siri's support for Mandarin and Shanghainese and the digitization of Chinese dictionaries. In 2013, she started a project to develop an open-source digital Chinese dictionary called "Mo-ten", which can also include non-Chinese dictionaries via its open source method.

In this kind of work, we made sure we consiered people who were less active in their size and technology representation, otherwise Siri or Google Voice’s system or Alexa wiould force them to speak their second language, rather than their first language, so we aimed to remedy that by making sure that they can make their own oral history into dictionaries.

Empowering them with such tools, such as Common Voice or Mozilla, there are many other examples. And basically make sure that the dictionaries are made with the people, not just for the people.

Note: “Common Voice” is a project of the Mozilla Foundation, the developer of the Firefox browser. It is an open-source speech recognition system that is trained by volunteers to recognize speech. In her book, Ms. Tang says, "Lee Teng-hui, who won the direct presidential election, pursued Taiwan’s development under the banner of 'for the people,' which was changed to ‘with the people’” after the election.

This is also what we observe from the Japanese side too. Any foreign concept in Japan is first just taking the sound of it and reusing the imported word. But eventually it carries a different social meaning in Japan, in which case you invent a new kanji or new concepts of words. This is what Japanese people do all the time, and also what the Taiwanese people do all the time.

So I am not very pessimistic. If we carry on the pessimistic view, then it will naturally mean that all the Japanese people, after a few decades, will speak only the imported words. But that’s definitely not the case.

There are people who write fiction, to make sure that there are now reinterpreted words that could be useful, supplemental augmentation to those imported words, and eventually coexist as concepts of their own, vis-à-vis those imported words.

Translation is a creative activity

UedaHave you ever read any Japanese novels?

AudreyYes, of course. I have read many Japanese novels but always through translation, which is why I really want to learn Nihongo, so that I can read the originals. In fact, the role of the translator, sometimes when we are talking about novels, are more so than the translation, we are actually working in the second creation, right?

For example, the Taiwanese translation of the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Lai Minju is her name, has a very particular style of translation that actually is her own flavor. It is as if she is his co-novelist. Because if you read any other translator’s version, it doesn’t quite feel the same.

And so I refer to this as assistive intelligence. Because the translator is also assisting the novelist.

Note: Ms. Tang describes AI as assisted intelligence (see Part I).

UedaYes, I agree that translation is a creative activity. It is becoming more and more recognized as such in Japan. Incidentally, the Taiwanese publishing house that handles Haruki Murakami's translations is planning to publish a translated version of my work in November 2021.

AudreyI’m looking forward to it.

UedaI hope you will find time to read it.

AudreyYes, the translated version. Maybe I can put it side by side and learn some Nihongo.

UedaHmmm. Some people say that my novels are too complicated and difficult to understand, so I'm a little worried about whether they can be translated (laughs).

(Photo: Nikkei xTECH)

AudreyMy favorite novel is Finnegan’s Wake. I really don’t think you will trouble the translator more than James Joyce.

Note: Finnegan's Wake is a novel by James Joyce, published in 1939. It was said to be difficult to translate because of the abundant word play. A translation by Naoki Yanase has been published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha.

UedaDo you read things in English?

AudreyYes, for the Ted Chang novels, the movie Arrival is based on his novelThe story of your life. He has his second novel published, a collection of novelettes, which is called Exhalation. I read both of them first in English because at that time there was no translation in Mandarin.

Note: Ted Chang is an American technical writer who also writes science fiction and fantasy, and whose 1999 short story The Story of Your Life won numerous awards. The Japanese title of the film Arrival is Message.

And similarly, I read The three body problem. Although there is a Mandarin version of course, it was written in Mandarin, but for some episodes, like the second episode I think I read in English version.

Note: The three body problem is a full-length novel by Liu Cixin, a science fiction writer from the People's Republic of China.

“Live long and prosper in 2021”

UedaSo, you read in both languages. It must be interesting to compare how they are written. You mentioned Haruki Murakami, but do you like his books?

Note: Takahiro Ueda cites Haruki Murakami as the parimary author who influenced him. He has read most works by Haruki Murakami, Soseki Natsume, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and William Shakespeare.

AudreyYes, definitely.

UedaWhat is your favorite book?

AudreyI don’t really have a favorite. You see, if you have a favorite, then you are not lost. You’re found.

The central theme of the great novel, Faust, from Ghete, if you say, this is my favorite, then you are no longer lost, and then you are found and anchored. So I don’t have a favorite. I always say my favorite is maybe in the future.

Note: At the beginning of Faust, in the dialogue between the Lord and the Devil, the Lord says, "Man is lost as long as he strives.”

UedaThat's a great answer. I would love to say that too. Can I quote it too?

AudreyYes, of course, of course, feel free to quote me on it.

Ueda"There is no such thing as the best." Thank you very much for your time today. Finally, what message would you like to give to the readers of Nikkei xTECH(Cross-ech), who are mainly engineers, to get them off to a good start in 2021?

AudreyDefinitely, and it’s my usual sign off message. I wish everyone to, “Live long, and Prosper!”

UedaI can't do the greeting gesture.

AudreyLive long and prosper! Arigatou-gozaimashita.

UedaI still can't…

Note: “Live long and prosper" is the Vulcan greeting from the American science fiction television series Star Trek. With the index, middle, ring, and little fingers attached, open the thumb and index finger, middle and ring finger and thumb, and show the other person the palm of your hand. It is this pose that Ueda says he cannot do.

(Photo: Nikkei xTECH)

Nobuyuki Yajima, Nikkei BP Research Institute

Editor’s Note

The highlight of this interview is Ms. Tang's words, "The last thing we humans will continue to do is to get lost. To be lost is to be in a "revery" (like dreaming, where your mind is empty), and by doing so you can explore your possibilities. This was a wakeup call to me.”

In business, we must pursue efficiency, and we use IT exclusively for this purpose. We would be reprimanded if we get lost. But as we blindly pursue productivity, we might be losing the chance of creating value that cannot be simply measured by effectiveness.

The discussion did not include COVID-19 related topics, political issues, or the spread of technology, but the two talked about the future of society and the significance of art.

In her book, Ms. Tang writes, "Artworks and artistic spaces have the effect of 'changing the way individuals inherently see the world. " In other words, art allow us to get lost.

The conversation started with Doraemon, perhaps because of which, there were many comments about anime and manga. Pieces that become popular or remain for a long time contain universal themes.

Due to time constraints, we were not able to ask Ms. Tang all the questions we received from Nikkei XTech readers. For questions about skill, education, and thought methods, please refer to the related article "If it is dangerous to rely on special skills, what kind of skills should we develop?" published on January 14, 2021.

Mr. Takahiro Ueda, a "cross-tech writer" who writes literary fiction in the early morning and works as a board member of an IT company he founded during the day, debates topics about “Art & Tech” with artists and technologists. In this interview, Audrey Tang, Taiwan's Minister of Digital Affairs), was asked "what will be the last thing left for people to do” when AI (artificial intelligence) and other technological developments continue to replace human activities. Ms. Tang's answer was a surprising one: “it is to get lost.” (Editor: Nobuyuki Yajima, Interpreter: Yumi Oishi)

*The original article is the collaborated piece between Nikkei xTECH and Forbes Japan.

*Nikkei xTECH, run by Nikkei BP, is a digital media focusing on technology whose main readership are engineers as well as business leaders eg., working in various industrial categories such as automobile, electronic, machinery, architecture and civil engineering.

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