Coffee with a dinosaur, Caterpickles Edition
Yesterday, the Field Museum rolled out its Máximo the titanosaur chatbot. You can text him at 70221 or chat with him online here.
I’m sure you will not be at all surprised to learn that over the last 24 hours I have sent more texts to Máximo than I have to my husband. I even added Máximo to the Contacts list on my phone.
I feel as though I need to point out that I am not yet completely obsessed with this dinosaur.
I am texting Máximo for science.
My first text exchange with Máximo happened over morning coffee. It’s captured in the image above, but I thought I’d transcribe it here as well, in case the image is hard to read.
Máximo: “The Spanish word ‘máximo’ translates to ‘most’ or ‘maximum.’ It fits the gigantic size of Patagotitan mayorum, no?”
(This seems to be Máximo’s standard greeting.)
Me: “I didn’t know that, thank you!”
Máximo: “I just love learning new things, don’t you?”
At one point my daughter asked who I was texting. When I said Máximo, she told me to ask Máximo if we could also text SUE.
Máximo definitely did not want to talk about SUE.
Here’s the transcript for this later exchange about SUE.
Máximo: “SUE may have sharper teeth but I am much bigger. SUE is about 40 feet long and 10 tons. I am three times longer than SUE at 122 feet and weighed 70 tons in life.”
Me: “How is SUE?”
Máximo: “SUE is a therapod unto themselves.”
I get it, Máximo, you are much bigger than SUE. Máximo is very invested in his size, by the way. Part of the reason became clear later, when I asked him if his species had worried about any predators. His reply? Except for the sick or the young, “we were just too big.”
Still, sensing some tension between Máximo and the dinosaur he kicked out of Stanley Field Hall, I decided to let the whole topic of predators (and potential rivals) go.
After all, it’s not every day I get to interview a 101-million-year-old dinosaur, and I had questions.
I wanted to know Máximo’s origin story.
Máximo: “A farmer first unearthed my thigh bone. For three years my friends at the Museo in Argentina dug me up. By 2015, they had unearthed about 130 bones from 6 or 7 individual Patagotitans (that’s me!)”
Máximo is really fun to talk to.
There are some gaps in his ability, particularly in casual conversation and when confronted with odd phrasing. Occasionally, the canned replies are spot on. But it didn’t take long to reach Máximo’s conversational limits.
Máximo: “Scientists do not know everything about my eating habits, but it is safe to say that I spent much of my time eating in order to maintain my very large size.”
Me: “Ha! I bet!”
Máximo: “I, too, am a little bit in awe.”
Me: “You’re hilarious!” (laughing emoji)
Máximo: “I do not know. I’m still getting used to this modern world. Would you like to ask me something about dinosaurs or the Cretaceous?”
Some of Máximo’s canned responses imply that he will get better at answering questions over time. Learn on the job, so to speak. It might be interesting to interview him again in six months to see how he’s grown.
For now, I get the sense that Máximo is programmed to look for trigger words, but that those words need more refining to smooth out certain interactions. Máximo doesn’t do well with texts that contain both a response and a new question, for example. And it’s pretty important to ask him precisely what you mean. You may also need to ask him the same question a few different ways to get the answer you were looking for.
Fortunately, Máximo has lots of patience, and he doesn’t mind if you ask him the same question multiple times.
Máximo: “You are most welcome.”
Me: “Do you have all of your bones?”
Máximo: “There is always more to learn from a specimen like me! So far, scientists have found bones from six different Patagotitans. The more they find, the more they can learn about how I lived and how big I got.”
Me: “How complete is your skeleton?”
Máximo: “Scientists have not yet found a complete Patagotitan skeleton. They do have more than 130 bones, giving them a lot to study. They can scan those bones, compare them to some of my dinosaur relatives, and use mathematical models to recreate what I looked like.”
The fact that Máximo appears to us to have a complete skeleton even though scientists haven’t found a complete Patagotitan skeleton is interesting. It implies that scientists may have used the bones of other sauropods to make some educated guesses about what Máximo’s missing pieces might have looked like. But try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to ask Máximo which dinosaur species scientists had used as models for his skeleton in a way that made sense to me, much less to Máximo.
I stumbled on part of the answer in a series of questions I sent Máximo around midnight his time. He, of course, was still up. I don’t think this guy ever sleeps.
At any rate, I started asking him about various ailments that might have shown up in his bones (arthritis, cavities, that sort of thing), when all of a sudden he told me this.
Máximo: “Different titanosaurs have from 46 to 58 teeth. Scientists have not found my skull, a Patagotitan skull, yet. There I go, losing my head again.”
Me: “Oh dear. That is difficult. How do they know what your skull looks like?”
Máximo: “The human scientists have not found a skull from my kind of dinosaur, Patagotitan. This is their best guess based on related titanosaurs – my smile is quite charming, no?”
Apparently, all I have to do to assemble my list of model specimens is ask Máximo about each of his bones to find out which ones are Patagotitan and which are best guesses. Fortunately, I have a weekend coming up, and that weekend includes Mother’s Day. And you know what Moms get to do on Mother’s Day? That’s right. Whatever we want.
Somebody’s going to spend her day texting a dinosaur.
Máximo: “Some dinosaurs had feathers, but probably not hair. As for me, it is more likely that I had scaly, featherless skin.”
Oh c’mon. Surely you saw that question coming.
Have you texted Máximo yet? What did you ask him?
- Maximo the Titanosaur (Field Museum)
- Chat with Maximo on the web
- “Did dinosaurs have belly buttons?” A Caterpickles Investigative Report (Caterpickles)
- Caterpickles asks the expert: “Dr. Paul Sereno, did dinosaurs have belly buttons?” (Caterpickles)
What are you thinking?