AI Party: Bot vs. 1970s Rotary Phone

Here’s a fun experiment demonstrating the power and challenges of using generative AI!

Full disclosure: I’m a “bicentennial baby.” This means I’m a child born in the States 200 years after my home country was founded in 1776. In other words, I’m an American born in 1976. When I was growing up, I listened to my favorite music on the radio, then pleaded with my parents to take me to a record store to buy a vinyl LP—or maybe a smaller 45 with THEEEEE tune that I desperately wanted to hear over and over and over and over until it made neighbors hammer on the door, begging for that song to stop. I remember the first 45s I blared so loud over and over that even God probably heard them: “Beat it!” by Michael Jackson, “Hey Micky” by Toni Basil, “Mr. Roboto” by Styx (a hint of the techie that I was destined to become), and “99 Luftballons” by Nena. (It wouldn’t be until MUCH later I’d appreciate the fact that I was listening to a song in the language of my ancestors. I didn’t understand a word, but that wasn’t the point. I was enthralled by the music!)

Tech and German culture. Now that I think about it, the influences that dominate my life now were present from the very beginning…

What else was happening in 1976? Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded a little company called “Apple.” Sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, M*A*S*H, and Charlie’s Angels were all the rage. And, oh yes. We had rotary phones. This predated smart phones, or even pressing down on a neat grid of buttons. You were presented with a ring of numbers, and you put your finger into a little round hole beside the number you wanted to dial. After your finger reached the maximum point of the ring, you stopped and repeated the exercise with the next number in the string, until the full number was dialed.

Fast forward to 2023, when I’m developing this website. I’m presenting myself as a VERY old soul in modern times. This is the most authentic way that I can describe myself, given how split I am between a passion for the past, and a love of modern technology. I don’t have much recent imagery of myself, but that’s hardly a problem in 2023. Right? I just need to feed a few decent photos to an AI bot, and it can generate an ideal, polished, flawless-makeup version of myself doing whatever I tell it to generate.

Crazy idea: Let’s decorate the site with photos of me (the old, old soul) with technology from her day and age. This shouldn’t be hard. Right? This is the thought in my mind while I’m firing up Midjourney and Discord, the all-popular generative AI services that create imagery.

Me: Okay, AI bot. Do you know what a rotary phone is?

AI Bot: Yes, I think so. It looks something like this. Right?

Rotary phone by Midjourney

Me: Um. Well, okay. The bot clearly thinks those finger holes are decorative. And what’s going on with that weird bottom horn? Ohhh, fine, it’s close enough. Let’s get on with it.

Me: Okay, dear bot. “Imagine” a photo of this person (namely, me), as a woman in the 1940s using a rotary phone. You can figure that out. Right? Easy peasy?

AI Bot: Ahhhh….. sure! Now, what the….? How in the heck did humans use a device like this? Every “phone” image and video in my awareness indicates that a “phone” is a black, flat-shaped device that people hold to their faces. But THIS….? This thing must have required some serious head gear. Let’s throw this at the human and see what she says.


Rotary phone as envisioned by AI

Me: (After laughing so hard that I fall out of my seat). Umm… no. This is not it. Try again.

AI Bot: Well, damn… I have NO idea how you people used these things. How many times have humans visited an of archeological dig, and wondered what this bone fragment or that stone artifact meant to the indigenous culture? Well, all right. Let’s toss this at the human and see what she says.


Me: LOL…. My ear lobe screams in terror, just looking at that huge black bauble and imagining this monster being supported by a teeny metal post, or a little fish hook threaded through a narrow centimeter of flesh. I’ll bet even piercing enthusiasts cringe at this.

Me: Okay. Well, I have to admit. That’s slightly better. But only slightly. Let’s try again.

AI Bot: Okay. What about this?


Me: Oh my God. Are those goggles or headphones…? I can’t tell which! (Not only that, but she doesn’t look much like me, and this lady looks like she’s having a bad hair day.) Try again, my bot friend.


AI Bot: Okay. How about this one?

Me: I find it both amusing and fascinating how we keep gravitating to headphones as the model here. No dice. Keep trying.


AI Bot: Now surely THIS must be how that weird apparatus works. Right?

Me: I’m feeling about as distraught as that woman in the picture.

Since I work with AI and technology, I have an intuition on what’s going on here. Generative AI systems are created by amassing vast “training sets” of data, and then constructing a model that tells the resulting bot all the facts of life based on that data. When we engage the bot, it uses that model to reference what it knows about the universe—and when it’s confronted with something unexpected, it takes a wild guess and tries to predict what the answer could be. My guess is that the bot’s training data probably contained information collected within the past 10 or 20 years. It clearly knows that we’re dealing with a communication device, and it correctly predicts that the handset is an apparatus for listening and talking. But, the only listening/talking devices contained in its training set were headphones, or headsets like customer service people use nowadays.

Interesting experiment! Hope you enjoyed this AI party. There are many more where that came from.