Lit 80, Fall 2013

Author: Sai Cheemalapati

Humanity of AI


Ebocloud response

Ebocloud, by Rick Moss, features a world where a deep social network drives humanity towards a social singularity. The social network – the Ebocloud – connects strangers into familial units and awards points for altruism. In combination with the functional tattoos introduced, the cloud has the power to influence and direct humans with ‘superhuman’ efficiency. As a result, groups of people can be harnessed to perform acts that would otherwise be impossible to coordinate.

Much of our conversation in class revolved around the ethical ramifications of the cloud. In my opinion, the ability of the tattoo to biologically influence others both very dangerous and a boon to society. The tattoo is also necessary for the efficiency mentioned above, so the question becomes whether or not it is worth the potential dangers it introduces. For example, someone could hack another person’s tattoo and paralyze them by flooding their body with a certain type of hormone. The connection  the tattoo proves to Ebocloud allows for the ‘computing’ power of humanity to be pooled into a single resource. The cloud can mine this data and through humanity produce works that benefit the populace as a whole. The idea is reminiscent of a ‘hive mind’, a concept in science fiction where a single entity controls a group towards a common goal. The structure certainly exists in Ebocloud. It is demonstrated in the book that the Ebocloud can control humans successfully, and that it is only one step away from turning people into drones.  There is a great risk that humans become absorbed into their ebo’s and lose their individuality.

With a hive mind structure, the cloud can harness human thought as the ultimate creative resource. In my mind, what puts apart a smart artificial intelligence and a stupid one is the idea of supervised vs. unsupervised. A supervised machine can produce decisions based on the information that is already within its database. An unsupervised machine can make new decisions and teach itself based on what observes. The Ebocloud to me is strictly a supervised machine. I believe it will succeed in harnessing the best ideas of others, but will ultimately falter in producing great ones of its own. In the end, I see the cloud ushering a new era of human efficiency, but not one of great understanding or advancement.

Ebocloud produces an interesting alternate reality with many possibilities. I enjoyed that it took a different approach from other singularity stories and put the focus on giant social structures like Facebook, and what would happen if this became an even bigger part of our lives. The book definitely a scary and impressive vision of what could happen, and it definitely made me think about the dangers, difficulties, and benefits of control.

Humanity of AI [ABSTRACT]

Artificial intelligence is a field of computer science that has fascinated science fiction writers and researchers for decades. Alan Turing devised of a test in the 1950’s for a machine’s intelligence. Simply put, a machine passes the Turing test if a human is unable to distinguish it from another human. Over the past few decades, artificial intelligence has jumped from a theory to a developed art.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the history and development of artificial intelligence. Analysis will include implementations of AI in the real world and in fiction.

The media element will be a simple chat bot I’ll make using the above techniques. The element will demonstrate the technology behind making a Turing complete (maybe…) machine and the advantages/disadvantages of certain techniques.

Electronic literature critique: “Strings”

According to Katherine Hayles, an electronic literature piece is “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” [1]. Due to the dynamic presentation forms provided by computers, electronic literature is able to provide more dimensions of interaction with viewers. In class we explored several different projects that presented text and audio and responded to user interaction. Electronic literature pieces intend to augment the user’s experience in a way that is not possible by traditional print literature. As a result, there exists much potential for the form as an artistic and meaningful medium. This paper explores Dan Waber’s “Strings” project and analyzes its merits as an electronic literature piece [2].

“Strings” is composed of several individual demonstrations of a simple idea. A string is shown in a small window that morphs into words and shapes. For example, the string could curl up on one side of the screen to form a “yes.” While more than one string may be present, none ever break or join. They may change shape freely.

The "yes" side of the "argument" piece.

The “yes” side of the “argument” piece.

Waber’s first piece, titled “argument,” shows a single string stretching the window oscillating from left to right. When the string reaches the left, the string forms a “yes”. When it reaches the right, the word “no” is formed. Interestingly, I think that this piece would be just as understandable sans the title. It is apparent from the motion of the string that there is stress in the exchange – the “yes” is pulled to the right until the string is flat while a “no” is formed on the right hand side, and then the “no” is pulled flat as a “yes” appears in the left hand side. In my head, when I first saw the piece my mind automatically applied a voice to the two words as they were dragged across the screen. A “yes” and “no” would sound in my head at each oscillation. The animation was able to easily reproduce the dynamics of an argument in my head. In text or image, the same situation would be very difficult to convey so simply and quickly. This several second animation with two words was able to convey the situation, tone, and apply some character to the words.

Another piece – “youandme” – shows the word “you” slowly moving across the screen while the word “me” buzzes around. The animation seems to give a personality to the words. In my mind, I imagined an old man walking across a room while his grandson/daughter runs about in excitement. The “you” has a slow and deliberate character to it, while the “me” appears to be playful and energetic.  I felt like a story was being told with the words. I was able to construct characters with unique traits and even produce a plausible scenario behind the interaction. The idea  – an old man walking as his grandson zips about – even put a smile on my face. It was pretty cool to see such a simple animation produce so much in me and even evoke some emotion.

Waber’s final piece, titled “poidog” shows a string morphing into the sentence “words are like strings that I pull out of my mouth” [2]. This piece reveals a little of Waber’s thoughts about the project. It’s an interesting premise, as his entire project is based around string morphing into words. When I imagine speaking and just pulling a morphing string out of my mouth, my mind attributes physical properties to the string. Gravity pulls the string down, and when changes are made at the beginning of the string, the end morphs slightly. It makes me think about how sentences are very interconnected structures and how altering a single word can change the whole structure’s meaning and presence.

I believe “Strings” is an attempt to show that a very simple structure – a “string” – can be embodied with both meaning and emotion. On paper or canvas it’s incredibly difficult to produce a story with just a few words that can convey a situation as well as Waber’s animations. His use of timing and stress in the string provides character and allows viewers to connect and project onto the words. With each piece, I understood very quickly what he was trying to show and I enjoyed watching the animations. As for where the piece fits in to the electronic literature scene, I believe it definitely makes its mark. I wonder however whether it would be as effective at scale. The format seems most effective at its current size – showing a small scenario. I think though that the idea can be expanded to a larger animation with more complex story and deliver an equally interesting experience.

To show that Waber’s piece fits into the contemporary literature scene, consider the following questions proposed by Hayles.

“Is electronic literature really literature at all?” [1] I argue that it is. Literature can be defined as “Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value” [3]. What Waber produced is definitely creating writing. He transforms words using animations produced on a computer to reveal a story. I believe literature in the creative sense should tell some kind of story. Other electronic literature pieces fail in this regard. Take for example, “Sea and Spar Between” [4]. The piece shows stanzas of Dickinson’s poems and “Moby Dick” presented meaninglessly on the screen on an immense grid. I couldn’t pull any meaning from it or decipher any kind of story. Really it just seemed like a lot of text was thrown on the page to make a point I didn’t understand. “Strings” does not fail in this regard – it’s immediately obvious what can be drawn from the animations available.

“Is literary quality possible in digital media, or is electronic literature demonstrably inferior to the print canon?” [1] Literary quality is absolutely possible in digital media. In “Strings,” Waber is able to tell a small story with the use of only a few words. I believe it would take a few sentences at least to produce the same level of story as the piece “argument” for example. The electronic aspect of the piece was able to convey meaning that would be hard to bring across in text so easily. Well made electronic literature can certainly show where the print form can benefit from the flexibility provided by code.

For the above reasons, I believe “Strings” is an excellent example of electronic literature. Waber was able to use computer animations to bring a string to life in engaging and interesting scenarios. Neither the animation nor the words are overbearing, and the piece is able to effectively communicate what it’s trying to accomplish. I hope in the future that Waber expands his concept with different, longer scenarios. Perhaps he would be able to allow users to animate words or their choice on a string and allow any chosen word to morph into another. Overall there is certainly merit to the piece, and I can imagine a lot of ways it could expand in the future.







Daytripper reflection

My first introduction to the format of Daytripper – the graphic novel format – was a series of comic books called Tintin. Tintin is a famous comic book series that feature Tintin the reporter and his dog Snowy on their adventures around the world. The stories are among my favorite in their scope and suspense, and I believe much of the impact they had one me was a result of the format. The imagery and words together provides a foothold for the imagination, and when pulled off well, can provide a more compelling experience to the user than just words alone.

Daytripper follows the story of Brás throughout his life. Each chapter, except the last, sees him die at a different part of the story. My interpretation is that the story is a giant “what-if?” While from Brás’ viewpoint, the story reads like a “what if I died here?” To me, it reads like a “what if I lived?” The books are organized non-chronologically. It starts with Brás as a middle aged man though. The choice to me seemed more appropriate than having the chapters go in order. By starting off with an older character, the author is able to establish the circumstances and issues in Brás’ life. The character is developed and plot points constructed in the first chapter itself.

The series revolves around the concept of death. It seems to give the idea more weight and meaning than many other stories I’ve read. One of the most powerful moments for me was when Jorge calls from Rio to confirm that he is not dead. Brás spent the month assuming that his best friend had died on a plane crash and was depressed as a result. What really struck me though was Jorge’s reasoning to not come home. He said that he “can’t go back to that life,” because “life is too short” (Vol. 6 p. 20). It really made me take a step back and think about myself and what I would regret if I died today. There aren’t that many moments in stories I read where I really stop and think introspectively.

Screenshot_2013-10-27-19-53-52 Screenshot_2013-10-27-19-15-58 Screenshot_2013-10-27-19-14-55Screenshot_2013-10-27-19-15-03

Media archeology reflection

Our discussion with Jussi Parrika brought up a lot of interesting points.

For example, I liked hearing that media archeologists do attempt to understand modern technologies and what goes behind them. As someone obsessed with computer science, I spend a lot of time understanding about implementation and very little time thinking about implementation. Parrika brought up data centers in the talk and mentioned that data was a physical object held there  and that data centers have a physical footprint in energy usage. The idea of real physical data was something I knew to be inherently true but not something I had ever thought about. The science behind data centers is fascinating – more than a decade of research has gone into methods of traversing and utilizing large amounts of data in a useful manner [1], and due to the way those methods must be implemented – server farms generate enormous amounts of heat that have to be vented and cooled with systems that require hundreds of kW of energy to power. In fact, data centers used as much as 1% of the worlds electricity output [2].

Another interesting point described was that of replicating an old document using the same printing techniques from the time period. They had to source the materials for the ink, paper, and use the correct press in order to make a reasonable facsimile. The purpose was to understand more closely the document in the context of it’s creation – the differences and difficulties involved in it. In order to get a complete picture on an object we need more than just the words on paper – but the historical context behind it including it’s creation. The idea was interesting and certainly fulfills the ‘media archeology’ aspect.

I think media archeology is an important and interesting field of study. Like I said I often think about implementation and not implication – and it’s definitely useful to see the physical and cultural impact of media elements and technology as a whole. Doing so helps to understand the modern world more – and offers new challenges to how we will preserve the wealth of information being produced every day (Google alone processes more than 20,000 terabytes of data per day) for future generations [3].

As far as our class is concerned, media archeology is certainly relevant and is applicable to books we just read like “Neuromancer” and “The Difference Engine.” Both books offer alternate histories built on developing technologies and suggest cultural and physical impacts resulting from the use of the technologies presented. The video game preservation project was also a perfect example of media archeology in the works.




The Difference Engine

After the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s and the integrated circuit a few years later, the seeds were lain for the computing age to take off. In the following fifty years, developments in electronics and circuitry would lead to a world economic boom and revolution unprecedented in mankind’s history. The idea for a purely mechanical computer was conceived more than a 100 years before the invention of the computer however – by British inventor Charles Babbage. It begs the question then – what would’ve happened if the computing revolution happened a century earlier with the creation of Babbage’s analytic engine?

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, takes place in a world where the above takes place. In this alternative history, Babbage completes his analytic engine – the sequel to the difference engine – and ushers the computer age in Great Britain in the mid 1800s.

The novel limits itself to a mechanical revolution – the transistor does not exist yet in this universe, and instead of having machines built around the integrated circuit, mechanical steam powered machines become commonplace. The technology that comes to Great Britain is steampunk in design. For example, there are steam powered carriages and televisions called Kinotropes. While a little suspension of disbelief is required to believe that steam is an adequate power source and that these technologies are actually possible, the world they create is very interesting to me. I’m personally very biased towards scientific research and development. If I could rule the world I would move entire economies to produce technologies in every field full time. I’ve always wondered what would happen if humanities focus shifted purely to the pursuit and development of knowledge, and I believe that great wonders would be produced in no time. This novel explores some lines of my fantasy in that Britain begins to turn towards science and hold scientific figures like Charles Darwin in high light. Other studies are pushed aside and science and technology are put at the forefront. As a result, technological progress proceeds at a breakneck speed as “modern” devices appear and globalization looms.

Macroanalysis thoughts

In my opinion, data encompasses all things that can be considered information. Information can vary in type and scope, and by looking at it from different angles we can reach different conclusions about its nature. Distant reading, or “macroanalysis” focuses on understanding beyond the minutia of individual works but rather more general understanding of a larger class – such as a genre or time period [1]. Just as close, detailed reading has it’s merits in understanding the implications of a particular work, macroanalysis can give understanding to it’s context. Take for example the use of macroanalysis to identify J.K Rowling as the author of the crime novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” [2]. The book was released under a pseudoname, but by comparing it to Rowling’s other books using macroanalysis techniques, like comparing word length and adjacency.  Projects like Google N-Grams and roadtrip maps are useful because they provide visual context to a large amount of data. As a result, we can see relationships that would not so easily be spotted in close reading. In the n-gram project, we can see the relationship and uses of words across time periods in literature. We can make conclusions based on the use and disuse of a word over time, like the rise in the use of cities during the industrial period. Projects like these augment scholarship in a scope sense. They allow us to step further back and approach genres rather than particular pieces of literature. I don’t think they necessarily augment reality – but provide a new way of visualizing it.




Gamer Critique

Video games, since their introduction in the mid 1900’s, have come a long way in breadth and scope. When they were first introduced, processing ability was measured in the thousands of operations per second. A game consisted of a blip on the screen representing a person or a ball.  Today, with processing ability measured in the tens of millions of operations per second, games are visual spectacles rivaling the clarity and scope of real life. The often-made comparison is that video games are ‘interactive movies’ (Rutgena).  I argue that video games act as a medium for communication where storytellers can build an epic world and players can channel a bit of their own personalities into their game avatars.

Ian Bogost states “videogames are a medium that lets us play a role within the constraints of a model world” (Bogost 4). The model is constructed by teams of engineers and artists to encompass the scenarios of play – complex rules that govern the virtual world and what is allowed. This world is a medium through which the writers can express a story, and through which we can express ourselves in the form of an avatar. The avatar is a representation in the game where we can act on its virtual surroundings. Through the avatar, we have an impact on the virtual world, and our decisions produce tangible impacts in the virtual world. Consider the video game ‘Skyrim.’ The player is allowed in the beginning of the game to create his or her own avatar. The player can chose from a number of races and hundreds of different options to customize the character to his or her liking. As a result, a personal connection is made. The medium allows for the player to transfer a bit of his or herself into the game and invest in the character. As an open world game, the player is free to journey wherever he or she wants and follow any storyline they choose. There is no pressure in the game to follow the main storyline, and no pressure to play in a particular manner. Players can choose to be magicians, or warriors, or archers or any combination of skill sets. As a result, they build their own story around the character as they level up, gain skills and make a name for themselves in the world. Players feel loss when their companions die or excitement when a new piece of armor looks really cool on their avatar. In the process of playing, a real connection is made to a virtual character. As a medium, the game has succeeded in creating a connection. Many people get addicted to progression – to keep going back and conquering monsters in dungeons to get that new sword or level up one more time.

It is natural to ask why this should be true – that a connection to the player is made in a game like ‘Skyrim.’ Games are a very powerful medium. Like movies can tell powerful stories through images and media, games too can deliver similar experiences. The difference comes through the interactivity. The ability to control characters and put hours of time into a scenario creates a connection that most mediums are unable to capture. The idea of choice comes into play – that games succeed because they allow players to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it.

Wark proposes in his book “Gamer Theory” that “The gamespace of everyday life may be more complex and variegated, but it seems much less consistent, coherent and fair” (Gamer Theory 32).  His suggestion is that games work perhaps because they operate so differently from our world. They must work, as a computer game, on a set of rules defined by the world. As a result, it seems more inherently fair and precise.

Consider another example – the game series ‘Sim City.’ In this video game, there is no story. The player is the mayor of a virtual city with a budget. There are no goals or directions. The mayor is able to place plots and roads and nurture a virtual city and watch it grow. The irritations and mundane realities of being a real mayor are forgone for the satisfaction of placing lots and watching homes rise spontaneously. By playing to the rules of the simulation, a bustling city can be built in no time at all to the satisfaction of the user. What is inherently separated from reality plays to fantasy – the idea of building something through nothing by sheer virtual power. Like Wark says, Sim City removes much of the reality from the game. By dropping more realistic roadblocks in city building and making the player essentially a God in the world, the game world is fair to the user’s demands – to build and destroy.

It follows from the above examples that games are an effective medium for communication between the player and the game and vice versa. Consider a more nontraditional game such as “Flow,” for example. “Flow” has no epic story like big blockbuster games, but it too has an impact on the player. As the game starts, the player is an organism in an underwater world. There are no directions and no indications of where to go. It’s easily observed that moving the mouse causes the organism to move, and that by approaching smaller creatures the organism can eat and grow. With a little bit more experimentation, it can be observed that eating an organism with a red dot moves the player to a deeper level, while eating an organism with a blue dot moves the player to a higher level. The game plants you starting as a lowly creature and you slowly build up until you defeat the final boss. Then you start all over again with a new creature, which you previously encountered as an enemy. The game chooses to start off with no directions or indications for symbolic reason perhaps. The player is a weak organism that has to eat and find it’s way in the world. You find out you can eat others to grow stronger and that others can eat you if you’re not careful. As you grow you learn the way the world works and you can outsmart and defeat your enemies. As a survivor, you were naturally selected to continue your lineage, and at the very end of your journey your organism lays an egg, which hatches back at the beginning. The game tells a story about life and slow progression and is oddly addicting. There’s an anxiousness that is built in the player to see what’s next – to try to get that next stage of evolution or see just how big the organism can get. “Flow” is a game that’s intended to be artistic – to make the player think and interact with a piece of art designed to be beautiful in visuals, audio, and interactivity.

Video games have come a long way since their inception to become artistic masterpieces. They build on established forms like movies, and through the option of choice they allow a new level of involvement for players. They are unique in this manner as there are few mediums that are able to demand so much involvement and evoke so much emotion.


Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.

Wark, McKenzie. “Agony.” Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. N. pag. Print.


Rugnetta, Mike. Idea Channel: Top 5 Most Artful Video GamesPBS. Web.

Neuromancer response

Neuromancer poses several pointing questions regarding the meaning of ‘humanity’, the effects of eugenics and genetic/physical augmentation on society, as well as the dangers of computing. At the end of it, the answers to those questions are still very ambiguous to me (as I suppose was intended). Certainly, I question what it means to ‘human.’ I’m personally inclined to ignore the biological definitions in favor of the thought based ones. By my definition, a human being is an entity that can make free willed decisions. Armitage is a curious case as a result – I don’t believe that he is human. He lacks free thought and in the end is Wintermute’s tool. As for the merits of eugenics and genetic modification, I imagine there are multiple paths to take. I personally think that genetic modification will in the long run benefit humanity. Being able to repair pieces of our bodies (or even replace them) is well within the rights of a person. The morally gray areas for me are clones, or bodies harvested to hold data. To raise a human for parts or as a clone seems inhuman to me. Depriving them of human freedoms makes it seem to me as though they are simply bodies with no minds. Clones unsettle me as well, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I believe it’s because the existence of a clone removes the uniqueness of both the original and the copy. Clones are simply renamed as something like ‘3Jane’, to represent the 3rd iteration. Their identity is the exact same but they are different in body in mind.

As far as digital humanities goes, the novel certainly relates to our work. It poses many questions about the interactions and integration of technology in society and possible future implications. While it seems to show many of the negative sides in its dystopia setting, it was interesting as a computer scientist to read the negatives. It definitely made me think about the applications of computers and technology and ‘cyberspace’ differently. If I were to write a project on this novel, I would delve deeper into the concepts of AI and humanity. There’s a well known computer science concept called the Turing test. An AI that passes the Turing test is indistinguishable from a human, and there are several directions I could go to think about what that means.

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