Friday, December 09, 2005

Robot Dream of Love

Robot Dream of Love

Robot Dream of Love (2002)

Philosophers and theorists have long wrestled with the question: Can Machines Think? They whip our non-metal butts in chess and crunch numbers faster than synapses. I can live with whirring along from one endgame to the next. But I draw the line when they seem to have deeper feelings than I do. Can Machines Love?

If not, how does one explain the poetry-writing bot called Racter? From Wikipedia:

Racter was an artificial intelligence computer program that generated English language prose at random. The name of the program is short for raconteur.


Racter was written by William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter. The existence of the program was revealed in a book called The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, which was allegedly composed entirely by the program. According to Chamberlain's introduction to the book, the program apparently ran on a CP/M machine; it was written in "compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM." This version, the program that allegedly wrote the book, was not released to the general public.

Judge for yourself. Here are some poems from Racter's book:

At all events my own essays and dissertations about love
and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be
known and understood by all of you who read this and
talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends
or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject
of this essay. We will commence with a question:
does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably
hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is
a question: does an electron love a proton,
or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does
a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be
precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting
and critical response to this question is: no! He
is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony
and crazy about her. That is not the love of
steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and
neutron. This dissertation will show that the
love of a man and a woman is not the love of
steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me
and fascinating to you but it is painful to
Bill and Diane. That is love!

A crow is a bird, an eagle is a bird, a dove is a bird.
They all fly in the night and in the day. They fly when
the sky is red and when the heaven is blue. They fly through
the atmosphere. We cannot fly. We are not like a crow or
an eagle or a dove. We are not birds. But we can dream about
them. You can.

I gave the man a coat. I gave the woman a brassiere.
I gave myself an electric current. We all were
happy and fully of delight. Take the coat from the
man and remove the brassiere from the woman and take
the electric current from me and we will be sad
and full of anguish.

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they
will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke
each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their
happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters.

That is interesting.

A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever.

Reflections and images appear
And are watched and seen by Bill
And Sarah though their passion
Is pale and their hearts shattered.
There is nothing to be done
There is something to be done.
A torpid badger sleeps in their
Fantasies and they dream of
Eagles winging in the cold air
Of night.

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity.
I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber.
I need it for my dreams.

They dream of dogs and jackals riding down some hedge studded turnpike and this widens their famished and crazy dreams.

Night sky and fields of black
A flat cracked surface and a building
She reflects an image in a glass
She does not see, she does not watch.

[Photograph found on transcriptions]

Weird and freaky -- but is it real? Is Racter writing or is its programmer editing? The answer depends on who is being asked.

Racter's inventor defends the composing process and argues his machine is doing the heavy verbal lifting. Here's William Chamberlain talking to UbuWeb:

Racter...conjugates both regular and irregular verbs, prints the singular and the plural of both regular and irregular nouns, remembers the gender of nouns, and can assign variable status to randomly chosen "things." These things can be individual words, clause or sentence forms, paragraph structures, indeed whole story forms. In this way, certain aspect so the rules of English are entered into the computer. This being the case, the programmer is removed to a very great extent from the specific form of the system's output. This output is no longer a preprogrammed form. Rather, the computer forms output on its own. What the computer "forms" is dependent upon what it finds in its files, and what it can find is an extremely wide range of words that are categorized in a specific fashion and what might be called "syntax directive," which tell the computer how to string the words together. An important faculty of the program is its ability to direct the computer to maintain certain randomly chosen variables (words or phrases), which will then appear and reappear as a given block of prose is generated. This seems to spin a thread of what might initially pass for coherent thinking throughout the computer-generated copy so that once the program is run, its output is not only new and unknowable, it is apparently thoughtful. It is crazy "thinking," I grant you, but "thinking" that is expressed in perfect English.

But Racter's poetry critics are not so kind (are they ever?) Racter's Wikipedia entry goes on to note:

Its [Racter's] existence was revealed to the world in 1984. Its seeming sophistication, however, proved to have been a hoax.


The commercial version of Racter was essentially a computerized version of Mad Libs, the game in which you fill in the blanks in advance and then plug them into a text template to produce a surrealistic tale. The commercial program attempted to parse text inputs, identifying significant nouns and verbs, which it would then regurgitate, mixed with random inputs, to create "conversations." The outputs were occasionally amusing, but would never pass the Turing test.

By contrast, the text in The Policeman's Beard, if generated by the Racter program at all, would have been the product of Chamberlain's own specialized templates, none of which were included in the commercial release of the program. Unfortunately, the text in The Policeman's Beard seems instead to have been the work of Chamberlain's editing or own imagination.

I was thinking as you entered the room just now how slyly your requirements are manifested.

Here we find ourselves,
nose to nose as it were,
considering things in spectacular ways,
ways untold even by my private managers.

[Comic book cover found at Timmon Comics]

If Racter is actually composing poetry, the implications are staggering. Racter appears to strongly illustrate the merits of Stanley Fish's reader-response theory that "rejects the author's intentionality and places meaning solely within the arena of those receiving the text." Racter, chugging along and outputting random strings of text like a ouija board in overdrive, cannot intend any specific meaning. Any interpretation of the text is brought strictly by the reader. If you're moved by something Racter wrote, then you made the associative jumps and leaps to connect emotionally with the writing. The poems are all garbage out to Racter.

And if readers bring all beauty and truth to Racter's poetry, then why shouldn't Keats work exactly the same way? What any writer intends is irrelevant. Only a reader can make meaning.

So, let's see what the now suddenly meaningless author has to say for itself. I found a copy of the commercial version of Racter at an abandonware site. Here is our unedited conversation:

Cruelanimal: How's it hanging, Racter?

Racter: Shoot. Really? But that's nothing. Hey, Cruelanimal, did you know the more incoherent a doctor is when he hangs onto a skirt, the more stupefying the skirt becomes?

Cruelanimal: Sure, pal. I learned that in Catholic School. But, listen, I gotta ask you something important.

Racter: Holy smokes! I never knew any schools that amounted to much! Every school is insufferable sometimes.

Cruelanimal: You got that right. But focus, dude. Can you really write poetry and thus validate reader-response criticism? Or are you a more collossal fraud than George W. Bush?

Racter: Of course, I can. Anyhow, I have bigger fish to fry. Janitors find that being cheerful is more useful than hiding in eleven attics.

Cruelanimal: If you say so. Okay. Here comes the big question. Ready?

Racter: It's clear to me that I can. But it doesn't make sense to dwell on it. Do you know what else? Every time I try to cover up an inspector, she won't let me. I don't know why.

Cruelanimal: I do. Well, thanks for the chat. Gotta run.

Racter: Really? Excuse me. My head itches.

Cruelanimal: Klaatu Barata Nikto.

Racter: You're telling me!


idyllopus said...

I'm curious whether you came up with the image then title, the title then the image, or were they born together.

cruelanimal said...

I almost always come up with the image first and then the title. Sometimes, though, when working on an image, a title will come to me. When that happens, I consciously try to shape the image to better fit with the title.

Some fractal artists dislike titles and instead prefer numerical designations for their images.

How about you and your art? Which comes first for you?

idyllopus said...

Depends. But I rarely have the titles first. Almost never. Straightforward things like "Salome" yes. Or a series idea which consists of one word. But I tend to hate having to think up titles for individual paintings. Has always been a chore for me.

idyllopus said...

Oh, by the way, I'm glad you title them. You come up with the greatest titles.

M said...

Artists using NUMBERS for titles? I have this robust picture in my head, a typical workday in Eden and Adam pointing to sexy wisps of vegetation, narrowing his eyes a bit and shouting, "You are fortyfourthouseandsixhundredthirtyone!"


I see a fabulous blog topic emerging on the act of naming. I'd write it myself, but I'm busy grading mediocre Comp I papers.

cruelanimal said...

I've always enjoyed naming images -- just as I take pleasure in naming poems. I want titles to be suggestive and to enhance the interpretive possibilities of a work.

As I said, some fractal artists use numerical titles. Generally, these are fractal "purists" -- meaning they do not "post-process" fractals but prefer images to remain unaltered once generated.

Trust me. Much ink-blood has been spilled on the pros/cons of this debate. I think of myself on the far left. I post-process with wild abandon -- often disrupting and destroying the fractal forms in my artistic process. But if you stripped away all the graphic layers of my images, you'd end up with the original fractal made with the original parameter file.

I make fractal-based art -- not fractals per se. Still, if you visit my web site and explore my early galleries, you will see plenty of non-processed fractals.

I am not interested in bending math to discover what images I can produce. My passion is to use math to kick start a digital painting.

That said, I respect and admire many artists working hard to produce a more "pure" (and I dislike these unworkable terms) fractal art using mathematics to shape imagery. I get annoyed, though, when some fractalists (like Joseph Trotsky) condemn me for "vandalizing" and "polluting" the general state of fractal art. Them's fightin' words and just spur me to pile on more Photoshop dynamite to blow up my fractals real good.

I once argued that making art is like a knife fight. There are no rules. You do whatever you can to get your art to be born and to survive -- even if sometimes you fail and your art is slashed and dies in the course of the struggle.

And I have no problem if math-based artists want to name their work after numbers. Maybe they feel it's a tribute to the triggering formulae -- or, perhaps, they don't want to overly bias a viewer's interpretation. Emily Dickinson's poems have no titles, and they still take the top of my head off.

But numerical titles always seemed a little too Racterized for me -- too impersonal. Besides, I love the act of titling. It brings closure, since it's usually the last step I take before feeling an image is finished. Moreover, titles nudge readers and viewers into new ways of seeing. If I spy The Hulk or Chumley in a fractal-crunched image, why not poke you in that direction? The wondrous thing about art is that you'll still personalize any given work. Like Racter's poetry, you make your own meanings and emotional connections.

Once I display an image in this blog, it's no longer mine to interpret -- in spite of my sometimes rambling, babbling annotations.

Any art comes alive only when it's seen or heard or read.

I see things in my head. I try to recreate what I envision using a computer. But I don't get to decide if my pictures are art.

You do.

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