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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am now just getting on with it and making a start on the actual coding of my virtual godlet. This is something which, historically, has been completely beyond my grasp; I find it usually very difficult to begin making anything until I’ve spied some sort of syzygy happening in my head; until all the spheres of my thinking on a topic are in alignment. Of course, all of you sensible people know that this is a rare event, certainly one which I have yet to witness in my lifetime, and when one is dealing with computer code it is a lost cause. Unlike natural language (in which I might ask you, for example, ‘what’s the smell of parsley?’), it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether what I ask of a computer will be understood in any sense whatsoever. Putting aside the complications of dialect, translation or channel, if we take human beings as, in small part, information processors, we see that they share certain expectations of semantics; a human response to a sentence that contains the words “what” “smell” and “parsley”, in that particular order, will be understood by the asker to some degree, even if it is not the response they were looking for. And once we have that basic understanding parlayed between us, the originator of the sentence can always return to the words at any point and prune, snip, train, trellis, topiary, coiff or shave them as needs must. As long as the inherent meaning of the sentence remains, or a new one is established, the individual parts may as well be the follicles, or foliage, that those verbs signify. They are components to be easily styled, removed, augmented or bouffed without destroying the trunk of the meaning.
This ideal consensus on language, which means that a first draft of most written natural language can stand alone as a parseable piece of work, rarely migrates to the context of computer code. The difference, I think, comes in the nature of the processing of the two different language-modes. When I am writing a natural sentence, the biological computers receiving and transmitting it are close to one and the same, within an acceptable degree of wet, mystic tolerance. My brain (that of the speaker/writer) and your brain (that of the hearer) have subscribed to a communal pattern of interpretation that we can agree upon, and which allows a fuzzy, thick-as-thieves, nod-and-wink as to the inherent meaning of the shared transcript without an exact, binary translation of what I, the speaker/writer, completely meant.
With a digital computer, not the case. We often speak about the problems of having computers recognise natural language, but there is still discrepancy in handing computers instructions written in supposedly-formalised programming languages. A programming language is, to a similar degree, a human construct; the computer must always translate what I am typing into a machine code that can actually be executed on its physical components. No matter how automated the instruction there must always be, as far as I can tell, a clumsy, mucky human defining something somewhere in the chain of proscription. Therefore no matter how precise and elegant that negotiating language, it will always be dictated by an entity entirely alien from the one that must understand it. Even a single line of code can contain errors of typing, syntactical heuristics that humans understand ‘just because’, not to mention assumptions as to the computer’s ability to ‘know what we’re getting at’. With all of these rules-of-thumb and degrees of error, it is always very likely that the code we have written, which we believe is hermetic and executable, will just grind the program to a halt, with no real indication as to why. As I am starting to understand, we cannot assume the computer to be another language-using entity like ourselves; though it has been created by minds like my own, I and it do not share a jot of common sense, lexical generosity or culture. It cannot (as yet) fudge my statements into something that it can understand ‘just because’. It instead operates with a mathematical unambiguity, through a language “clearer and more precise than the spoken languages like English or French” 1 in the words of J.W. Forrester; a statement that I can agree with, even if it glosses over the paralysis of self-expression that such a language presents to the creator.
It’s taken me quite a lot of space here to write through my ideas to the point at which I can say the following; if it has to be this way, and you do have to work with such an unimaginative, taupe correspondent, then it’s best to find out where you are making mistakes and assumptions (the stuff of imaginative discussion) very early on in the process, before your ways of working get too cozy and the relationship starts to sour.
It is the start of the second term of my PhD, and as well as thinking about the above I have become sick of talking about my work without having anything post-verbal with which to illustrate it. I have already begun to fiddle about with Construct 2, a development environment for HTML5 games which has a very sunny, persistent manner in asking me for money. I’m still not its biggest fan; instead of coding scripts directly (as I’d become used to in Gamemaker: Studio) a Construct 2 game consists of ‘event sheets’, lists of conditions and actions chosen from a fractal series of menus that could have been hand-coded in about one-third of the time. It does have its advantages2, but my main reason for using it lies in its native support for Google’s voice recognition API. I have put together a small prototype of
knole‘s titular creature, consisting of some non-committal artwork and some basic looping functions. The voice recognition is already installed; with no work on my part, my deity has its oracle, its psychopomp, a form of priesthood. It can hear the prayers of those that speak them near its (that is, your) microphones.
I haven’t implemented any feedback or reactive behaviour into this prototype. What is important, at this initial stage, is to test my approaches to creating some illusion of life. Without a conscious decision, and apparently ignoring the fact that my character is divine, I have begun by encoding a semblance, a performance, of breathing and blinking. I suppose I settled on these two functions for several reasons:
- These are very low-level behaviours, relatively ‘easy’ to interpret, which can loop with no contingent input from an audience.
- Breathing and blinking are perhaps two of the initial qualities that we expect, in the absence of any other vitality, from a living being with lungs and eyes. I have decided, independently, that lungs and eyes are a good starting point for getting people to identify with my creature, even if it is divine and has no need for them. Kittens and celebrities and people’s mothers have lungs and eyes. People like things to have lungs and eyes, and for those lungs and eyes to do things, quietly and diligently. Without some sort of diligent, quiet, primitive animation, no amount of interaction would counteract a very atavistic sensation on the part of the audience that there was something ‘wrong’ with my creature. Prothesis of biology is nothing new when gods are concerned; just look at Zeus and his rampant, transcendent teledildonics.
- They were quick to code up, and allowed me to test my architecture for the creature with little fuss.
This ‘architecture’, my chosen way of theoretically constructing and organising the encoded ‘self’ of my creature in programming language, is based very much on the principles of Behaviour-Oriented Design, a method of building believable computer agents developed by Dr. Joanna J. Bryson, now of Princeton and Bath universities, during her PhD.
To over-simplify her work, agents (let’s call them ‘creatures’) in this system have separate modules of ‘behaviour’, self-contained micro-programs that chug along quite happily on their own within a large network of other independent behaviours until called upon by something called a ‘reactive plan’. Such a plan is a series of rules which determines which behaviours ‘run’, influenced by both internal and external factors. In the mammalian metaphor of my creature its behaviour, its goals and its ‘plan’ for acting can be influenced both by stomach-aches and thunderstorms, depression and the sight of dew.
In the argot of BOD, then, my prototype’s breathing and blinking are action patterns influenced by a drive selection. In these foetal stages, my creature’s low-level drive could be said to be ‘stay alive’, ‘collect air’ or even ‘pretend to be a living animal’; however I choose to frame this drive, it leads to the creature prioritising, over all others, its breathing behaviour. In more complex agents, there are many arenas of conflicting drives, all of which jockey for priority throughout the agent’s existence. For now, though, we have only lungs and eyes, and even those only function in the most mechanistic, abstract fashion. There are no other factors to consider in its behaviour; it has no concept of fear, because I have not told it what it must do when it experiences the thing I call its fear; it has no concept of hunger, because I have not told it what food is nor that it should crave it. I might not imbue it with these things at all. But for the moment, with nothing to constrict its throat, it hangs there and breathes; in and out, without, very literally, a care in its world, forever.
If you have a copy of Construct 2 you can download the
.capx file from
knole‘s Github repository and look at how these primitive actions are structured for yourself. Though I am currently using BOD for my theoretical applications, I haven’t encoded that architecture into the prototypes yet; Construct 2’s event sheet architecture doesn’t lend itself to it incredibly well. The creature as yet doesn’t have a concept of ‘staying alive’, which might be the thing which compels it to breathe; or a concept of ‘irritation’, or anything to irritate it in the first, place which might cause it to blink. It does these things because it is told to do them, without causality of any kind.
Looking at the functions themselves, at the moment there are no biological simulacra encoded into the architecture; only logical process. Each drawn component of the creature’s face (its brows, its eyes, the various segments of its nose) are separate objects, all of which move at certain rates, in certain directions and up to certain thresholds, simulating the motor functions of a face. These movements are controlled by separate breathing and blinking event sheets, but the values of all of these rates, thresholds and directions are stored separately as number variables within each object itself. There’s a smidgen, then, of BOD’s modularity, but I’m not quite there yet.
This is how the breathing functions, in pseudo-code:
Start ----> 'breathe in'
If: creature is 'breathe in'
And: face < upper threshold ----> move face up @ preset rate
If: face = upper threshold ----> 'breathe out'
If: 'breathe out'
And: face > lower threshold ----> move face down @ preset rate
If: face = lower threshold ----> 'breathe in'
And so on, in a contented loop. The blinking happens concurrently, shrinking and growing the eyes at a much swifter but randomised rate. While I did not test whether the two behaviours would interfere with each other, they seem to make good subliminal bed-mates. What is most important about this architecture is that it is extremely adaptable; every component’s movement, the threshold of that movement and the rate that it moves can change. Once the god has things that it can react to, whether that input be vocal, tactile or otherwise, these inputs can change those numbers, and so complicate its behaviours. The passing of time could make the creature’s eyes droop and sag with tiredness, or a tender finger run along its jowls might make it hyperventilate.
Though in this prototype I sought to bring my way of thinking, my authorial, human language of ‘creatures’, ‘wants’ and ‘breaths’, around to the precise concepts of the computer, to perform a translation between myself and the machine as an initial lemma, the next and important step is to use this mathematicised abstraction of my godlet to explore the shared vocabulary of the human mind that I share with my audience; that emotive syntax of smelling parsley. Even in these very early stages I am witnessing the tabula rasa that coding a creation presents; how everything, every preconception and grant taken, must be explicitly stated there in the code. I cannot write what I like; the rules of grammar in programming are far more ironclad than in English, and everything must be stated very dully and fully before I can begin to play with them. But it is not dull to do so; I am getting excited at how the creation of every single element of this creature’s internal world assumes my authorship. What reasons will I give the creature for breathing? What will irritate it into blinking? What will I tell it to like, and what will I tell it to hate? It will be interesting to start realising some of the principles of BOD into the work.
Of course, this translation is going through several different exchanges now; from my brain to the computer and back into the brain of you, the ‘reader’ of the creature’s face. But it is in that final process, from the computer language into the language of your imagination, that the most telegraphing effect will take place; a sharing of semantics between myself and you. The computer is no different from any other artistic media; I am using it as a vector for significance, relying on our shared animalisms, our closed-circuit sentience, to provide a system out of which all of the personal peculiarities of you witnessing the creature, as part of your particular life, might arise. There are some things that I can predict about your reaction (that you will see my thresholds and rates as the breathing and blinking of a being, rather than as maths) but there are other things that I cannot. I would be interested to hear your initial reactions to the prototype, but I’m happy to report that most of the people that I have shown it to are very taken with it, even at this simple, allegorical phase.
People’s eyes are drawn to its reassuring, regular, cyclical movement, even its lack of reaction. Though there is as yet no sound to accompany it, when I look at my silent godlet I hear behind my ears a wheezing, sucking snort as it draws the nonexistent air inside. Through the movement of the simple lines that make up its nose, people will into being the three-dimensional chambers and membranes that such a nose must have in real life. My tutor even said that it was ‘hypnotic’ to watch. It’s an odd feeling, using digital, documented architectures to test what is, in the end, an organic sort of computation; a parsing of subtle, inexpressible data, garlanding and enmeshing the code with imagination and inference, like fronds of laurel on bobbed curls.
Unlike a computer, the human brain will always compile something; it will never lock entirely. Even when we give it such an impoverished test as this, it cannot help but engorge it into a plump, living deity, pregnant with pauses, expectant to begin.
1. As quoted in Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, in a less-than-flattering context. <-
2. For example, unlike most programming environments if you change the name of an object or variable it is changed everywhere, which functions a little like a cosmic spellcheck in a universe where an ‘i’ before ‘e’ after ‘c’ can cause total and utter heat death. <-
Now that I am starting to grope into my PhD in great fistfuls, and work out exactly how I might start to build my digital godlet, I think it’s time to focus on specifics. At the moment I don’t have many of those; my notebooks are filled with misty calls to ’empathy’ between the human agent1 and the creature, as well as long, hopeful lists of potential interactions that will, I am sure, prove very difficult to code into being. However, one specific has stood since the beginning of this project, and persists as the mechanic upon which everything else must rely; the ability of the human agent to read the poem, which tells the creature’s story, aloud to the digital creature itself.
Fundamentally, I am talking about natural language processing; the now-banal ability of computers to take the waveform input of a human voice and understand that input as words and sentences, in a computerish sort of way; this is not of course the same as ‘understanding’ in a human sense, but rather involves transcribing those words into parseable text, or ‘strings’, which the computer can use for something else. Most people’s everyday interaction with this technology is limited at best; despite Google’s best advertising efforts, not many of us walk down the street and boss our phone out loud, as if we had a small staff of lice understairing in our fingercreases. If we do use NLP at all, it is in clipped, unbroken phrases; to dictate a text message when we are using our other hand to balance a ziggurat of biscuits, or to ask our phone something provocative in front of all our friends who have not heard its reply. I haven’t yet found much evidence of computers being read anything beyond functional, spare instructions.
Therefore last night, as I am now a Computer Scientist and I do things with a shining, experimental rigour, I lay in bed with some Medjool dates and a cup of oily tea2 and read my phone some poetry.