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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to speak with a historical figure?

Imagine the conversations you could have had with philosophers like Plato and Socrates. Military leaders like Julius Caesar and Sun Tzu. Musicians like Ludwig von Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Political leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Sir John A. Macdonald.

While these opportunities will obviously never materialize, there are now unique ways to engage (sort of) with figures from the past. Modern technological advances in artificial intelligence, or AI, allow us to “speak” with famous people who left their mark in some way, shape or form.

A word of warning. If you have unusually high expectations about the potential content, flow and accuracy of these conversations, you’ll be a bit disappointed.

Here’s an example. The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell conducted an “interview” of July 16 with an AI simulation of Harriet Tubman. That’s the well-known U.S. abolitionist leader who escaped slavery on Sept. 17, 1849, and made 13 missions over an eight year period to help rescue roughly 70 enslaved people. She used the secret network of routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, and never got caught under this cloak of darkness.

Tubman also served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army during the American Civil War. She strongly supported the women’s suffrage movement, too.

Brockell used Khan Academy’s artificial intelligence learning tool, Khanmigo, for this interview. The nonprofit online educator launched the Chat4 system earlier this year that “enables users to have live chats with dozens of simulated historical figures like Abigail Adams, Genghis Khan, Montezuma and Winston Churchill.” She, like anyone in her position, didn’t exactly know how this discussion would go. “Would the AI attempt Tubman’s authentic speech, her religiosity, her tenacity?,” Brockell wondered. “And if so, would it come off horribly, a 21st-century minstrelsy? Or would it be like ‘talking’ to a Wikipedia entry?”

It turned out to be a mixed bag.

“I was relieved to find the Tubman simulation using modern conversational language, though still infused with hints of her courage and piety,” Brockell wrote. “I was surprised to find ‘her’ asking me questions, too, and that a small part of me wanted to give sincere answers.” At the same time, she noted that “it was difficult for the bot to say much more than the superficial things most of us learned about her in high school, and ‘she’ failed some of The Washington Post’s accuracy tests.”

There are several instances of historical inaccuracies in the Brockell-Tubman interview.

She asked Tubman at one point, “Did you say ‘I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves?’” The AI simulation of the prominent abolitionist answered it thusly, “Yes, that quote is often attributed to me, although the exact wording may vary. The sentiment behind it is that many enslaved people were not aware of the true extent of their oppression or the possibility of a better life. It was difficult to help those who did not recognize the need for change or who were too afraid to take the risk.”

Aye, there’s the rub.

“Tubman did not say this, despite what Kanye West and various memes claim, and there are many articles online saying so,” Brockell correctly noted. “I was disappointed that the AI evidently wasn’t able to discern quality of information.” When she asked Sal Khan, the Academy’s founder and CEO, about this discrepancy, he said “the bot isn’t a fact-checking tool and noted ‘Tubman’s’ hedge in ‘her’ response, that the quote ‘is often attributed to me.’” He suggested this is an “improvement in the technology,” and there should be more improvements in about six months.

Brockell was unable to get responses about modern issues and controversies, either. Tubman wasn’t able to answer why her image still isn’t on the $20 bill (“The decision to feature me on the $20 bill is a modern development, and I cannot speculate on current events or decisions”) or express an opinion about reparations for slavery (“The concept of reparations for slavery was not widely discussed during my lifetime, and my primary focus was on helping enslaved people escape to freedom and advocating for the abolition of slavery”). Brockell was particularly “disappointed with the hedge and the vagueness” for the latter response, since reparations were discussed to some extent in Tubman’s time.

In fairness, Brockell’s expectations for this interview seemed way too high. Existing AI tools aren’t perfect. Only certain aspects of an individual’s life, career and thoughts can be properly recreated through this technology. Chronological and historical mistakes will occur, and hopefully diminish as things improve.

Most importantly, this isn’t the real Harriet Tubman. A human being with a range of emotions and personal memories would have likely answered these questions very differently than the AI simulation. She also might have tackled some modern topics like reparations for slavery and critical race theory, using historical themes and context to mask her obvious deficiencies and lack of understanding of these hot button issues.

Nevertheless, I believe this should be regarded as a successful experiment with a new, emerging technology. It may even reach the point one day where the real person and AI simulation are neither separate nor different, but remarkably close to being one and the same.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

After several months of analyzing loony politics for Loonie Politics, I thought we could all use a small diversion. So, I’m going to delve into one of my unusual areas of interest, animation and comic strips. But never fear – I included a few dashes of politics and the military for good measure, too!

What’s the appeal of the world of comic strips? When you deal so much in reality, it’s nice to take an occasional detour into a world of fantasy.

I’ve been enamoured with all things comics for decades. Devoured the newspaper funnies and watched countless Saturday-morning cartoons as a young child. Collected comic books and graphic novels into my early twenties. Purchased VHS, DVD and Blu-ray versions of classic cartoons and modern animated series. Incorporated political and editorial cartoons into my diet, along with Japanese anime and international cartoons. Studied the illuminating history of comic strips from A to Z.

This passion also turned into profit.

I’ve written columns, opeds, essays and book reviews on animation and comic strips for publications in North America and beyond. It’s also helped build relationships with publishers like Fantagraphics Books (Jacq Cohen, Eric Reynolds, Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson), Library of American Comics (Dean Mullaney), Sunday Press Books (Peter Maresca), IDW Publishing (Keith Davidsen) and others.

In fact, my work in this area has consistently received the most positive amount of feedback during my long career. This includes readers who enjoy this particular genre as well as those who don’t frequently peruse comic strips. Why? It seems to be a combination of childhood nostalgia and an interest in reading about a subject not often found in a newspaper, magazine or academic journal.

What am I reading these days?

I’m currently engrossed in Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (2016), published by HarperCollins. Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913-1944, is one of the most influential comic strips in the past century. Yet, the cartoonist himself has long been a man of mystery, from his mixed race background (which was kept hidden) to his views on comics and society (which were rather complex). It’s one of the most remarkable books on comic strip history that I’ve read in recent years.

I’m also looking at Todd DePastino’s Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin (2020). Published by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, it includes a preface written by actor Tom Hanks. It’s an exceptional study of the Pulitzer Prize-winning liberal cartoonist who famously drew the infantry soldiers Willie and Joe for publications like Stars and Stripes. Some of his well-known editorial cartoons are included, along with a fair amount of lesser-known work. An excellent read thus far.

In the world of graphic novels, I’ve finished off a few titles during the COVID-19 pandemic from the Top Shelf Productions imprint of IDW Publishing.

Andi Watson’s The Book Tour (2020) is an exquisite story about a lesser-known British writer, G.H. Fretwell, and his Kafkaesque journey of mishaps and unfortunate circumstances. Jeff Lemire’s The Complete Essex County (2009), which I’ve been meaning to peruse since it was first recommended to me by long-time Liberal strategist (and fellow comics enthusiast) Scott Reid, is a powerful, complex collection of fictional tales involving individuals, families and life’s many ups and downs. The pièce de résistance was the three-volume set of March (2013-2016), written by the late U.S. Democratic congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. It’s a powerful reflection of Lewis’s important role in the America’s civil rights movement and opposing racial segregation.

What else am I looking at?

I recently picked up Frank Marraffino and Brandon Montclare’s The Final Symphony: A Beethoven Anthology(2020). This graphic novel is a joint project of Z2 Comics and the German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. It provides some interpretation, with obvious dashes of artistic liberty, about Beethoven’s life and career on his 250th birthday.

I’m going through comics historian David Kunzle’s superb Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007), published by the University Press of Mississippi. The Swiss-born Töpffer is one of the earliest-known and most influential 19th century European cartoonists. He created the text comic/sequential picture book Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, in 1837, which was reprinted in England as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1841. It was also reprinted by the U.S. publication Brother Jonathan in 1842 – and under the same title in 1849 to become America’s first comic book.

Finally, I picked up an English-language version of Wilhelm Busch’s 1865 classic illustrated story Max und Moritz. This book was the inspiration for Rudolph Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids and, in a lighter fashion, Herge’s Quick and Flupke. Max and Mortiz are two mischievous pranksters who cause plenty of mayhem to everyone they encounter. They meet their demise in the final chapter, although none of the villagers seem to mind!

As you can see, there are many fascinating avenues to follow when it comes to comic strips. My hope is this assortment of book titles will intrigue readers and tickle a few funny bones along the way. Enjoy!

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.