A few weeks ago we volunteered to have our house haunted. All in all, they’ve done a good job; in fact, I’ve yet to meet a single cowboy or cowgirl in this particular industry. We’ve watched our skirting boards swell and bow, heard something play the descant on the fins behind the fridge, and our Achilles heels have throbbed with a shared prickle and spook whenever we have sat on the sofa to eat dinner off our laps. Even though it’s over now, and I’m sad at the exorcism, we’ve been very pleased: it was exactly what we wanted.

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A Lifetime With Dom

dominos virtual assistant, dom



The world in which it lives, the world which it is, stands at about 400 pixels wide, and I’ve looked everywhere across them, but no matter what I can’t seem to find any genitals. This makes me very uncomfortable; we demand to sex our agents, in ways we wouldn’t demand of our friends or colleagues or pizza delivery drivers.

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Empathy Machines: Love, Guilt and Paracosmics in Interactive Characters

furby title

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Empathy Games

When we meet for our monthly catch-ups, Bath Spa’s Empathy Research Group resembles a boardroom meeting for the world’s most nervous, and self-deprecating, security firm. Imagine such a thing. Believe me, we know better than any how difficult that is.

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knole Prototypes #2 & #3
Functioning Speech Recognition & Text Input

I completed two prototypes this week. Compared to previous efforts they were trivial to put together, but they represent a developmental milestone. For the first time my godlets can receive, interpret and process human language, albeit to a primitive degree. As the plural suggests, however, my attempts have bifurcated my project into two separate branches; in parts because of my lackings as a programmer, the restrictions of the engines that I am using, and the narrative metaphor right at the centre of this project.

Each of the two prototypes receives language input from the user in a different way; the first uses voice recognition, provided as a boxed feature by the IDE Construct 2. I have had prior misgivings about Construct, primarily around the paradigms that its ‘no-coding-required’ ontology imposes upon my work, but my reasons for using it have always centred around the ease of eventually implementing voice recognition. As I’ve now found, it can be deployed in minutes, with a brief clicking-through of sub-menus, and because Construct is an HTML5 wrapper it leeches Google’s API for fast, accurate results. Since popping it into my project I’ve received a lot of rumbling, cooed admiration for the results that I do not really deserve; as well as having little understanding of the processing involved, I used Aaron Clifford’s excellent demo-project Speech Commander as a blueprint, or rather as a source of plagiarism. My ignorance of this technology versus my desire to include it is a dynamic that does worry me; I feel that I should understand its functionality before making it so central to the godlet’s functioning.

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A Talk Given To The Bath Spa Empathy
Research Group, 29th February 2016

I will try and include as much of what I covered as I can; but I will not try to write as I spoke, because I speak like a human being, and that’s dull. I’m also not going to abandon the opportunity to include some things that were flung off at the last minute because of timings, or to engorge other things in hindsight. I’ll skip the explanation of my project that the group required; if you want such introductions, you’ll need to make them in the archives.

Let’s begin instead at my research question, as it is still standing.

“How can digital interactive characters, such as those encountered in videogames, better come to embody the same ‘literary’ qualities enjoyed by those found in more traditional works of art, whilst maintaining their unique qualities as dynamic agents within a system?”

When dissected, the nubs of this question lie at the juncture of similarities and differences between characters in traditional media (such as films, books and other artforms that do not rely on digital computation) and new media (such as those that do). The terms traditional and new are to an extent arbitrary, debatable and troublesome, but I won’t be entombing them in brackets, obeli, quotation marks or any other apologetic punctuation. I have arbitrated them precisely for my inquiry; though the lines between them are anything but defined, and I am studiously avoiding the word ‘technology’ for a reason, I must ask you to accept, for the purposes of bearing each other over the next 7,000 words, that the use of the digital computer to make art does something fundamentally isolating to that art.

This very art, which includes many different permutations of code, software-driven simulation, art ‘generators’ and, most visibly and controversially, videogames, presents unique opportunities to experiment with the most basic factors of human expression; opportunities that lie in the qualities of the form. However, such opportunities also couch enormous, sometimes-hideous challenges to those who would make such art, particularly in a world that already often assumes that there exists a cool, stable and distant relationship between art and technology, and the definitions of those words. These challenges, along with the relative youth of the new forms, engender certain deficiencies in new media art today. Some of these are the fault of new media artists, and some of them are the fault of the world. One which remains the fault of both is the deficiency of character.

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knole Prototype #1a – The BOD Architecture

I’ve just released another prototype of knole‘s titular landscape god, but there is nothing new for you to see. It still just sits on its own neck and watches, breathing and blinking slowly, and I still question whether or not a god even should breathe. My placeholding art is still holding the place, though hopefully I will soon feel confident enough to show some other concepts; many people to whom I’ve shown it even like the clean lines and demarcated, symbolic biology, and feel that I should keep it that simple and abstract throughout. This would certainly irrigate my theories (cribbed from others) concerning the power of human imaginative abstraction, and significantly lower my workload.

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pheasant image

I never saw the beater who brought the pheasants to Cob Cottage and slung them over the wall, like panniers full of cooling lunch. In my mind they are an utter stereotype, one I don’t need to describe to you, one that we can all picture as they disappeared around the keystone of the house wall and up the slope and into the fields. It was some sort of day, weather-wise, warm I think, and the riflers had not needed any excuse; they had sent the beaters rifling through the furze. You often heard the munch of the guns off in the hills, though you never heard the bird’s response. They die in far greater numbers than the riflers would ever want to eat; that is, in greater numbers than zero. Pheasants can be rustic meals, but not many people profess to enjoy cooking them. To get any sort of taste you have to graft onto them the fat of other, less-rigourous animals; the little that the birds possess has the colour of bronchitis. In fact, the whole carcass, once it’s skinned, looks like the cautionary tale of a lung.

In that part of the world, and in this time of the world, such gifts over the garden wall are commonplace. On the shoot days, once the trigonometry had been had, once the long machines had been loosed and exercised, once it had all been worked out to a certain number of decimal places, all of the houses that border the fields and woods are left entire braces of dead birds by the retreating beaters, who swiftly pick their way back home to something tastier.

We had been sunbathing in the small walled garden next to the track that led up around the cottage, up the hill and under the kitchen; we were lain beneath the small, avuncular crab-apple right in the centre of the lawn. It was only a little patch, but the grass had such a tog and was pleated right up to the stones of the wall so that it felt that we were actually bathing in a manger of water, bedded and plugged in motionless algae. The man who owned Cob Cottage, who I already found terrifying and who would later spoil everything and lose himself the house, the importance of love, everything, told me with what might have been expertise (I didn’t know him well, and never came to) that the birds needed to be rested in the fridge for at least an night before we butchered them. The plural there was assumed; the women who I was with in that house were not asked. I didn’t see the pheasants, in particular my pheasant, until the next morning.

The sun was gone the next day, and though it didn’t rain there was a bitter curl of wind coming over the lip of the garden. As I dressed up inside, with everybody who would be staying indoors that day idly and impatiently tugged the lapels of my fleece, lovely hot breath in my ear, telling me that I had nothing to prove to him, that I did not have to humour him and that we might have a nice day ourselves, instead. That he might do all six himself. In that anteroom it felt as if I was preparing for a duel, or an execution; certainly that I might never be seen again if I stepped through the kitchen door, back into the garden that I had loved the day before.

We were all being pathetic; the idea of pulling these murdered things into modules was upsetting me even as it was exciting me. At this point in my life I still ate meat, and had for a long time felt like a charlatan; a stuffed breast. I saw this brace of opportunities, slung into our deep self-satisfaction, as a way to be the cyclic creature that I had always wanted to be; a Möbius intestine, keeping my refuse, my usage, my vileness, hermetic in one perfect unimpeachable bracelet of being.

This placed a lot of responsibility with those birds that even then were chilled to their middle, completely foreign, queued for us outside.

I was nearly buckling as I walked out, under the scaffold that the thatcher had put up, and met him on the lawn.

The deckchairs had been tidied off, even though they had not been in the way at all, and the crab-apple looked planed and newly installed; as if it had not been there yesterday. He stood with a plastic margarine tub full of knives and looked immeasurably content. He had already finished four of the birds while he had been waiting for me, and now stood listening to the stream and the bugle of children on the near horizon, flush with his extraordinary life, snugly fitting what he had chosen to do with it.

At the top of the tree were two gnarled joists that I had not noticed before, mortises that twisted away from each other at near-perfect right angles. On each hung a pheasant by its neck, knotted through a length of twine. He had taken the dun, colour-of-the-world female, allowing me to luxuriate, to sightsee, in the roomer male. I thought it inappropriate to couch it in terms of all those comparisons that I could make (its rosemary neck, its yoghurty nibs, its Quetzalcoatl brow) but I could not help it; we are often incapable of seeing these animals as anything other than communications at us that must be answered. The female on the other side of the trunk, a bird that the male had probably never known, failed to respond as nature intended.

We set to work, trying not to look at each other around the ridiculous gibbet he had made, while the women inside occasionally, languidly glanced from the kitchen window, further and further disintegrating into the mist rising from the words they were saying, and the stock they were making. It was so cold inside the bird.

I could now, removed from that day, really ramble about that pheasant, up and down; I could tell you what its grain bladder reminded me of, how its guts moved in my hands, about the colours and the textures and the evacuating smells and the tricks of gravity and the things he said to me that were warm and encouraging; but it would just be something to write. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it is hard to do well. What I think I might focus on, instead, and what is interesting me these days, is the process by which I felt that I understood a small part of that pheasant in parting it from itself, and how that feeling of understanding, if not understanding itself, made me extremely unhappy.

I have been reading about birds recently, but I have also been reading about computers, specifically in the work of Joseph Weizenbaum; Weizenbaum was a computer scientist and co-founder of that discipline, and thus excellently placed for his later jeremiads against the use of easy, lazy metaphors when speaking about computers and their relationships to the greater world. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum delineates the ‘computer metaphor’ which, even by 1976 when the book was written, had in his view begun an uncontrollable, Utopian replication through the populist imagination, cloning itself into every conceivable topic of thought. As we had come to understand how computation worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and began to experiment with ever-more-powerful applications of computers, it became very tempting to see every aspect of the world as a pronounceable system in which individual parts work in unison to produce an output, just like a computer. Such a temptation, Weizenbaum thought, could lead to only a barren justification for acts of unhumanity and inhumanity, both catastrophic and commonplace, and a gross misunderstanding and dilution of the truth of the world. To quote the book’s closing lines, “what could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”

Like all metaphors, I think, and as Weizenbaum thinks, the ‘computer metaphor’ is an exercise in abstraction; applying an idea to a disparate context, and then using that idea to deduce a new census, a Solution, to each disagreeable aspect of that context in turn. A mind is like a computer, we still say, so let’s debug it. Society is an algorithm, so let’s re-write it. The result of such systematising, in Weizenbaum’s view, are almost all bellicose and leviathan; wars, massacres, napalm clinging to the jaws of babies. Applying his ideas it is hard to say that we have moved out of this conceptual bind in the last forty years; this metaphor is still applied, irresistibly, to every aspect of our lives, the only difference perhaps being that it is as much the preserve of commercial bodies as academic ones these days. I watched the stream of a panel discussion from a game developer’s summit recently, in which a group of A.I. developers stated that the production of “content” (that is, what is actually in the game, such as character, dialogue, narrative) by human beings is too unpredictable and slow a process, and that by applying the up-and-coming metaphors of A.I. a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ might be found; automated systems that generate new stories, new motivations, new characters and plots from sophisticated, seismographic algorithms. A story is, after all, just a program run from initial rules. So, let’s run it.

Such metaphors, whether they are about computers or not, are comforting to anybody wrestling with soft, indistinct problems or trying to understand something enormous, as I was on that day. It was tempting then to frame that process of butchery, of revelation, of biology, in so many different ways. There was, for example, an intimacy I felt as I dressed, or rather undressed, the bird’s body; I had to touch its neck a lot, and felt the hungry veins there; it seemed to shrug off its pelt willingly as I cut into the interdermal membrane that kept it dry inside a heath. I had never been so close to any animal, not even a pet; I had never been permitted. It exposed its dimpled pecs to me, though that implies volition, and I went further in I flicked at the precious glans of its heart, not thinking how that would have felt in life. I also felt and focused on this gradation of insides, me inside clothes inside a garden inside a pheasant inside something else entirely, and there was a sort of sense made there. My hands were so cold by that point that I had to dip my gory fingers into the mug of tea that had materialised beside me. Hanging there, I saw it most as a delicate, interpolated network of things, horripilating in the wind that was getting up. Most of its systems were not working, and I was snicking off the interconnections, making sure that they could never work again. And that is how the computer metaphor got into the small space between me and my pheasant, and I started to see that word ‘system’ again and again. It was easy after that, and just horrific.

The man, who had done far worse things than this, came around from his own bird, once he was satisfied that I had cleaned right the way back to the spine. The last thing to do before decapitating it for the oven was to clip off the feet. They were lax and loose, signal-less, the most immovable things that I had ever seen; covered in mismatched, yellow crazy-paved scales. They looked painful. There was a smile on the man’s face, a normal smile, and he told me that he had just that moment made a decision not to try and trick me. I was happy about that, but confused. He brandished wire-cutters, clamping the bird’s ankle between the blades, and he told me that if he had been feeling cruel he would have told me to hold the foot as he snipped. I didn’t, and I watched what happened next. As the blades sheared through the bone with the sound of a ripped stocking, the claws suddenly curled in of their own accord, all the way tight into a fist. He told me that it was just the tendons spasming and reacting to pressure, and that when he had first done this, with another man, he had been told to hold the foot, and when it held him back he had screamed.

I am trying so hard, and I did try then, to dispel the overlapping solomonic circles of metaphor that surround this bedraggled (though perhaps something needs to be alive before it can be draggled), poor (how?) organic matter that I see as a bird. I am trying not to rely on the easy, elegant translations of sexuality, cookery, cartography, class, fraternity and most of all logic that I could perform upon this article of the environment that I might call a bird. Most of all, in that unifying clench of its foot, in which an input is reacted to, I am trying not to see it as a machine. It’s too reductive and Cartesian, a denial of the bird’s terror, the crime committed against it, the indignities it has suffered; an enormous assumption on my part, and unfortunately an enormous comfort. The feedback loop was too tight; there was too much correlation between the tweak of the wirecutters and the sad reaction of the innards; I had already lain out the IF->ELSEIF->ELSE patterns that such a toe-curling implied. And even now all this time later it becomes hard to see the life that once imbued this apparatus as anything other than a self-perpetuating circuit or, even worse, a performance of life, with no back to it.

I felt sick by the time I had finished, and the feathers snagged about the lawn for days.

Weizenbaum states that a metaphor is only useful, and not harmful, if it enriches both the contexts which it utilises. I am not sure whether this is the case here; the bird is dead, it has helped me to understand some other thing a little better, and makes me see systems everywhere and wish to replicate them, no matter how incompletely. But even with everything taken apart and itemised, even in seeing the far bus of its lungs, I worry that something is missing from my model; and, even more horrifically, I worry that there is not.

I drove that pheasant halfway across the country to glaze it, wrap it in bacon (I didn’t think this much about the pigs) and eat it. It was too hot, and too dry, and a waste.

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