(2014-12-31) Richardson: Writing Aliens, Or, Duchamp Markov Queneau A Mostly Delightful Quilt

Leonard Richardson: "Writing Aliens", or, "Duchamp, Markov, Queneau: A Mostly Delightful Quilt"

In computer science, artificial intelligence is the stereotypical failed project

We have been working on this for sixty years and we don't have anything that approaches the general-purpose cognitive ability of a human being.

As a science fiction writer, I think it's presumptuous to use a human being as the standard of intelligence. We don't expect space aliens to have the general-purpose cognitive ability of a human being. We expect them to be different from us.

I would prefer not to anthropomorphize pieces of software. But I can't stop, because I'm a fiction writer. I anthropomorphize everything

So I've been trying out the idea of thinking of pieces of software as alien beings of various types

The artificial intelligence project has split into two smaller projects. The first project is to create servants: software that can interact with humans, on the humans' terms

The second front in the AI project is not an official research project, but it has also been a big success. This is the project to make humans more computer-legible

sometimes I write especially for an alien called Twitter. And when I do this, the alien's biology has a huge effect on what I write.

You can think of Twitter as an alien library that can contain an infinite number of texts. Due to a quirk of its biology, it cannot metabolize any text longer than 140 characters.

This biological limitation changes the way I write. I use abbreviations I would normally never use. I reword things to make them shorter, even when that makes them sound stilted.

What we see now is a kind of symbiosis, where the aliens make maps and remember things for us, and in return we only do things that the aliens can understand. And of course we fix the aliens when they break.

Okay, I love aliens. I create aliens all the time. Real aliens made of software, like Twitter, and fictional aliens made of words, like the ones in my novels. And fictional pieces of software created by fictional aliens

all of this is a gold mine for science fiction writers. We love aliens and computers, but we also love to pit a individual against a system. A bureaucracy, a government, a corporation, a religion, a family. A system that imposes constraints on people, and a person who finds those constraints dehumanizing to the point of being intolerable.

So I'm going to pitch to you a story idea: In the grim, dark future, no written communication can be longer than 140 characters

we, their human parents, are not so smart, either. All that natural-language text they don't understand? Most of it is not very interesting.

This is why we build aliens like Twitter. There is something appealing about constraints. We thought "maybe if we only had 140 characters, we'd be forced to make every one count."

In real live, the 140-character constraint didn't solve any of the problems I just mentioned

constraints that are forced on you are terrible. But voluntarily-chosen constraints are the source of creativity.

Earlier I mentioned that humans are good at language processing and general-purpose reasoning, and bad at everything else. I originally also had "creativity" on that list, but I don't know whether creativity is really a skill, and I also don't think we're all that good at creativity. Creativity comes from picking the right constraints.

making a painting, or a story, or a computer program, requires making decisions. Billions of decisions. You don't have time to make these decisions individually. But the right constraint can really cut it down, and let you hunt through a much smaller set for some good ideas.

In fact, to write is to continually add constraints. Every word you write reduces the options you have for the next word

Stop looking for the absolute best constraint. Pick one at random and see if it works.

Here's Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's 'oblique strategies' deck.

Tarot is a technique for using randomness to make sense of your everyday life.

But even pure randomness is not enough.

Pure randomness is as boring and as terrifying as a blank page.

Oblique Strategies, One Upon A Time, and the Tarot all use cards to put constraints on pure randomness.

I'm going to tell you about three kinds of aliens I've seen in the wild, and created myself. I differentiate them based on how they combine constraints with randomness

The first kind of alien I name after Marcel Duchamp, the patron saint of Dadaism.

there's a web comic I like called Pokey the Penguin.

Pokey the Penguin is weird, but it's not an alien, it's a work of art created directly by a human being. However, back in 1998 I wrote my first creative alien, based on Pokey the Penguin and called 'Dada Pokey'.

Dada Pokey takes the image files from Pokey the Penguin, shuffles the deck, and deals out a new hand, in the same linear format as the original comic.

You can still read this. Your brain still fills in the blanks between the panels

*Now, if the alien chose these panels completely at random, which I assure you is the truth, why is this story readable? Why doesn't it look like white noise?

1. Because we are hard-wired to construct a narrative out of whatever little bits of information we see.

2. This particular comic is short. Any three points form a triangle. If this comic were longer than three panels it would fall apart pretty quickly.

and 3. By virtue of being a comic strip, Pokey the Penguin already contains a lot of implicit structure, which Dada Pokey preserves. I don't cut up the panels and recombine them into new images; I just shuffle the panels.

A Duchamp alien is the software equivalent of a deck of cards. It takes a deck of cards, shuffles it, and deals some out

The second kind of alien is the one you will probably get if you ask a random nerd about this problem. I call them Markov aliens because they're based on a mathematical technique called the Markov chain.

A Markov chain becomes an alien when you feed its output back into its input

There's a dial on a Markov chain which you can tweak. The dial is called 'order' and it basically controls how much of the original text the Markov chain tries to match when it guesses.

Here's an order two Markov chain. At this point more of the original text starts showing up, and the sentences become a little more coherent. But you, the reader, are still doing a lot of the work.

If you turn up the dial too high, your Markov chain will just quote the original text obsessively, like a Monty Python fan

But the idea of using Markov chains for artistic purposes goes back at least to 1972, and although the first Markov chain was used in a mathematical proof, it was trained on a work of literature

Markov chains were invented in pre-revolutionary Russia by A. A. Markov, a mathematician who liked picking fights. The two fights we're interested in right now happened in 1913, when he was retired.

Markov's colleague Nekrasov had published a paper that contained a mathematical argument for free will. Markov saw this paper and decided that it was clobberin' time. He noticed that Nekrasov's argument relied on an unproven assumption about Jacob Bernoulli's Law of Large Numbers.

All he had to disprove this assumption was invent Markov chains. And then he had to create the world's first actual Markov chain, which meant spending several solid days counting the vowels and consonants in Pushkin's poem Yevgeny Onegin

I bring this up for two reasons. First, it's one of the most interesting stories I've heard recently

The second reason I bring it up has to do with one of my big literary influences, the Illuminatus! trilogy (by Robert Anton Wilson). In that story there's a character named Markoff Chaney who goes around sowing chaos by putting up official-looking but misleading signs

If a Duchamp alien is shuffling cards and dealing out hands, then a Markov alien is playing some kind of Exquisite Corpse-type game

A Markov chain with a low order reliably generates what George Orwell called duckspeak: it looks like it should make sense, but it's gibberish. Generative duckspeak is great for mocking the platitudes and euphemisms spewed forth by The Management, as Markoff Chaney did with his misleading signs. But it's very unlikely anything interesting will happen in your brain if you read it.

This is the problem I have with Markov chains. They're really good for creating two specific effects, but nerds tend to treat them like the go-to technique when you want to make an alien.

A couple years ago I announced that I was sick of Markov chains, and I set out to find another way to make an alien. I discovered that I'd already invented one. In fact, I invented it three times, and other people had invented it before me

Here's the first time I invented it, in 2009. I gave the Dada Pokey treatment to another of my favorite web comics, Dinosaur Comics. Here's a Dinousar Comics strip.

Every Dinosaur Comics has exactly the same graphics

The Dada Pokey technique won't work here, because the panels are not interchangeable. The cards are all different sizes. But I can still shuffle Dinosaur Comics. I just need to create several decks of cards in a way that respects the underlying structure.

This is similar to a traditional children's activity called "heads, bodies, legs". Here's a "heads, bodies, legs" book from 1980

once I was looking for a technique like this, I quickly rediscovered it. It didn't seem to have a name, so I call it "Queneau assembly", after the French writer Raymond Queneau, who as far as I know was the first person to apply it to text.

Queneau needed help creating a heads-bodies-legs book for poetry

There are ten variants for each line, and they all fit the same meter and the same rhyme scheme, so there are 1010 possible sonnets in one little book.

I think these are the big three, creatively, right now. Duchamp, Markov, Queneau. There's another technique, using generative grammars, which isn't used much anymore, and I'm sure there are more types of aliens waiting to be discovered

as of recently I'm really into Twitter. In 2013 I put three projects like this up on my website, versus eight projects on Twitter

3. Twitter's onerous 140-character constraint puts human-level performance within reach of an alien

The longer you look at the output of a Markov chain, the less sense it makes. The longer a Dada Pokey gets, the more conceptual leaps you have to make to fill in the action between panels, and at some point you'll just say "fuck it" and quit.

But you can get around this problem by drastically shortening the length of the interaction. You don't have long conversations with your phone, and 140 characters isn't a novel. It's not that hard to create a software alien that can imitate a human being for 140 characters.

I discovered this in 2011 when I actually put a space alien on Twitter. Constellation Games was being serialized, one chapter a week, so as a promotion/bonus I created two scripted Twitter accounts for characters in the novel, which ran alongside the serialization

One of the feeds was for the book's main character, Ariel Blum. His Twitter feed was mainly a chance for me to use a bunch of ideas that wouldn't fit in the book. It looks like normal Twitter posts from an average computer programmer who happens to be living after first contact.

But the other Twitter feed was for Tetsuo Milk, an alien anthropologist

Tetsuo has a way of speaking English that's kind of the opposite of a Markov chain. It looks like gibberish, because he keeps using the wrong word, but if you look at it you can figure out what he means.

If you followed Tetsuo back when he was posting on Twitter, his posts would show up in between your friends complaining about whatever people complained about in 2011. And people retweeted him, and some people talked back to him, the way you talk back to the television. This was a real revelation for me, because it brought the aspect of a performance to my writing

Now it's 2014 and there are a ton of aliens on Twitter. I've got one more big story to tell you but I want to sort of take you on a tour of these friendly aliens and explain how they work.

Note all the little things I added to create the appearance of a personality for this alien. It's not just a list of product ideas, one after another. It's a person, a sketch comedy character, "The Serial Entrepreneur", this tinkerer in a garage who writes ideas down on napkins and is really excited about ideas that never work.

@AmIRiteBot is another automated comedian, by Darius Kazemi. It's a Duchamp alien

Okay, here's my last story. This is a story about an alien invasion in reverse.

I call it...

"Invasion of the bot-y snatchers", or "Behold, a pale @Horse_ebooks".

Someone was now manually curating the output of the horse ebooks algorithm, picking out the good stuff. @Horse_ebooks had become a pod person. Everyone thought it was a goofy blustering Marvin the Martian alien, but it was a human in a mask. Humanity had invaded the aliens.

Now, people do a lot of things in the name of art, but why do this? Why would you laboriously pretend to be a robot for two years? I don't understand it. But the fact that I don't understand it told me something.

Some of these quotes turn out to be funny, some of them turn out not to be funny. How difficult is it to find the linguistic features that make this sort of thing funny?

Could I turn the fake alien that people had been hoping for into a real alien?

That's where the big display monitor in the commons area comes from. It uses the same code as @pony_strategies, but it's taking quotes from online science fiction I got from Free Speculative Fiction Online

The other monitor displays hapax legomena from the same corpus—words that only appear once across six thousand stories and novels. This is my little tribute to the moments of creation in the writer's life, when you come up with some turn of phrase or neologism that you know probably no one will appreciate on a conscious level.

You might say that this year's Foolscap is the first science fiction convention to have guests who are aliens


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