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Computational Chemistry


Pickup lines and fine wines

by Melissa Gilden
April 18, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 14


Pickup programming

An image of a robotic hand holding a red heart.
Credit: Shutterstock
Futuristic flirtations: New, text-writing artificial intelligence algorithms don't always know just what to say.

Artificial intelligence does a lot for us. It can drive our cars, help us discover drugs, and devise multistep chemical syntheses. AI is also heavily used in online dating platforms to match potential partners. And now, it can help us break the ice with them too.

Well, sort of.

Researcher and author Janelle Shane likes to make light of AI by getting computers to say and do funny things. A few years ago, Shane first practiced getting computers to generate pickup lines using a neural network—a series of computer algorithms that attempt to mimic the way the human brain makes connections. However, that neural network was relatively small. “Although it was completely inept, its pickup lines were utterly charming,” she tells Newscripts. One of those lines, “You look like a thing and I love you,” became the title of her book on AI.

Neural networks are bigger now, and more advanced. An AI language model called Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) is commonly used for generating routine ad copy or summarizing information, Shane says. To be able to pump out that copy, those bots have to be trained by reading tons of internet text as source material.

So Shane used GPT-3 to generate some sweet nothings, but the results weren’t quite what she expected. “I had expected GPT-3 to copy human-written pickup lines from lists it would have seen in its internet pretraining. Instead, I got some very new, often very non-human-sounding lines,” Shane says. And boy were those bots smooth. Here are some of the Newscripts gang’s favorites:

“It is urgent that you become a professional athlete.”

“You look like Jesus if he were a butler in a Russian mansion.”

“My name is a complicated combination of 45 degrees of forward motion, 25 degrees of leftward drift, 75 degrees of upward acceleration, and infinity and that is the point where my love for you stops.”

While some more unsavory lines had to be filtered out—the bots were trained on the internet, after all—Shane says that, as long as there’s human oversight, GPT-3 could be a real time-saver for writing—romantic or otherwise.


Space wine taste test

A bottle of Petrus wine next to the metal canister in which it was sent aboard the International Space Station.
Credit: Space Cargo Unlimited
Wine wear: Glass is verboten on the International Space Station, so this bordeaux went up in a special canister (shown here).

In February, Newscripts reported on an experiment involving some interstellar vino. Start-up Space Cargo Unlimited had sent 12 bottles of bordeaux to the International Space Station (ISS) for 1 year and had brought them back to see the effect of microgravity on wine aging. A few weeks later, Space Cargo partnered with the University of Bordeaux to hold a wine tasting with an expert panel. The tasting compared the bottles aged on the ISS with the same vintage kept on Earth. And there were some notable differences.

Philippe Darriet, a professor of oenology at the Institute of Vine and Wine Science at the University of Bordeaux, led the analysis of the space-aged wine; he examined the volatile aromatic compounds that account for color, smell, and taste. Darriet says that so far, researchers have noticed a difference in color between the space and terrestrial wines. The wine experts observed the color of the space wine to be slightly brighter, with orange notes. These observations were confirmed by his lab’s analysis, which his team suspects may be due to limonene.

Jane Anson, an accredited wine teacher at the Bordeaux Wine School and one of the panelists, says she observed differences in color, smell, and taste of the wines. She says the space wine displayed more floral characteristics and softer tannins, as opposed to more “robust” and “muscular” tones in the wine aged on Earth. Most notably, the wine that had aged on the ISS “was maybe 1, 2, or even 3 years ahead of the one that remained on Earth,” Anson said during a press conference.

Darriet’s lab is working on the analysis to determine the cause of the changes to smell and taste, but he says the varying access to oxidation on Earth versus the ISS is the likely culprit.

Darriet stresses the importance of replicating this experiment. To that end, Space Cargo has four more missions planned, including a tour with white wine, just in time for summer.

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