You know the romantic cliche, “We’re so in love, we can finish each other’s sentences”? Last week, Google made a game just like that, except instead of being romantic, it’s a little creepy.
Semantris is a fun, addictive game that asks players to come up with a word that relates most specifically to another word. The challenge is to word-associate as quickly and accurately as possible. Players initially see a list of 10 words. One word is highlighted. The player must type in a word that precisely relates to that word. If they’re good, the words reorder depending on how similar they are to the new word. If the new word and the highlighted word are closely tied together, the highlighted word will move past a threshold and disappear. Then, the player receives points.
For example, if the game highlights the word “moon,” players can type in “orbit.” The game knows that “orbit” relates most to “moon” but not, say, “truck” and “fruit.” So “moon” moves to the bottom of the page and the player advances. Semantris also has a Tetris-like version that works more like a puzzle. By associating words with each other, players remove groups of blocks. It’s seriously hard to stop playing and exciting to see whether your associated word fits in with Google’s ideas of semantics (spoiler: usually, it does).
How does Google know that “orbit” relates to “moon”? The game’s official description explains that it does because Google’s designers literally have billions of lines of dialogue and internet conversations to train their artificial intelligence. You can input names of books, movies, whatever, and it’s likely that Google’s AI will know what you mean. Is that creepy? Not really—it’s no revelation that Google is collecting data to better its technologies.
What is creepy, though, is that later in Semantris, the game introduces some brands for players to free-associate with. “What’s the first word you think of when you hear, say, Starbucks?” sure sounds like the opening of a market research quiz. L’Oreal, Futurama, Harry Potter and Visa were just a few other brands Google wanted me to play around with. I love word association games, but I don’t love it when it feels like I’m giving personal marketing data to behemoth, black-box tech companies.
Reached for comment, a Google spokesperson told me that’s no data-selling happening in Semantris, “The point of it isn’t to collect data—we’re not training models with the words people enter or selling it to anyone. This is just a demo to show how far AI has advanced in terms of understanding natural language.”
That’s reassuring. Now, who can I talk to about my boyfriend finishing my sentences?