Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sheldon Klein on Computing Lévi-Strauss, a blast from the past

The work of Claude Lévi-Strauss was terribly important to humanistic thinking in the last half of the 20th Century. As Alan Liu has pointed out in a recent essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423) Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology was “a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system” (p. 418).

Back in the 1970s a computer scientist and computational linguist at the University of Wisconsin, Sheldon Klein, developed a model that would generate myths. I’ve appended the title and abstract of a report of that work, with a link to the report. This is typical of the work done on story-telling in the 1970s. More recently David Ferrucci, who led IBM’s Watson project, did a story-telling project with Selmer Bringsjord: Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity: Inside the Mind of Brutus, A Storytelling Machine (1999).

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Sheldon Klein et al. Modeling Propp and Levi-Strauss in a Meta-Symbolic Simulation System. Computer Science Department, University of Wisconsin, Technical Report No. 226, October 1974.

Abstract: Tests of the system include an automated generative model for a portion of Levi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked, and an automated generative model for Propp's Morphology of the Folktale. Output presented includes fifty Russian folktales, generated at an average rate of 128 words per second (Univac 1110/1108), including computation of plot, generation of deep structure and generation of surface text. The meta-symbolic simulation system includes a powerful behavioral simulation programming language that models, generates and manipulates events in the notation of a semantic network that changes through time, and a generalized, semantics-to-surface structure generation mechanism that can describe changes in the semantic universe in the syntax of any natural language for which a grammar is supplied. The total system has the power of at least the 2nd order predicate calculus, and will facilitate the formulation of highly abstract meta-models of discourse, including logical quantification of such models. Other features include the ability to treat objects, characters and complex actions as manifestations of the same abstract semantic unit. Extensions of the research to riddle, dream and myth generation and analysis are discussed, as well as the possibility of modeling more of the work of Levi-Strauss.

Here’s another version of that work, in French:

Klein, S., Aeschliman, Applebaum, Balsisger, Curtis, Foster, Kalish, Kamin, Lee & Price 1976. Simulation d'hypothèses émisés par Propp et Lévi-Strauss en utilisant un système de simulation meta-symbolique. Informatique et Sciences Humaines, No. 28, pp. 63-133, Mars. [A revised and expanded French translation of 'Modelling Propp and Lévi-Strauss in a Meta-symbolic Simulation System.' in Patterns in Oral Literature, edited by H. Jason & D. Segal, World Anthropology Series, The Hague: Mouton, 1977, with a new Lévi-Strauss model, a revised Propp model, and a different set of computer generated folktales.]

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