Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Prospero Project

Now that I'm immersed myself in thinking about digital criticism (aka machinic reading) it makes sense to make this post current. I've just made a few revisions to the Prospero doc, most minor, one a bit more substantial (a new paragraph on how Prospero changes in the course of operation).
I've uploaded a thought experiment to Scribd. It's about a computer that can read literature and talk about it.  It's called, naturally, Prospero. An abstract's below, followed by the introduction.
Abstract: Prospero is a thought experiment, a computer program powerful enough to simulate, in an interesting way, the reading of a literary text. To do that it must simulate a reader. Which reader? Prospero would also simulate literary criticism, and controversies among critics. The point of Prospero, if we could build it, is the knowledge required to build it. If we had it, we could examine its activities as it reads and comments on texts. But our knowledge of Prospero is of a different kind and order from our knowledge of the world and of life, though those things are central to literary texts. The point of this thought experiment is to clarify that difference, for that is what we will have to do to build a naturalist literary criticism grounded in the neuro-, cognitive, and evolutionary psychologies.
* * * * *

Back in the mid-1970s a journal then called Computers and Humanities invited my teacher, David Hays, to write a review of recent work in computational linguistics. Hays was a natural for the job. He’d been involved in computational linguistics from the beginning, was then the editor of the leading journal in the field, American Journal of Computational Linguistics (AJCL), and had recently written about “Language and Interpersonal Relationships” for Dædalus.

Hays asked me to draft the article. I was his student at the time and, perhaps more directly germane to the task at hand, I was in charge of abstracting the current literature for AJCL. I was of course pleased and flattered to do so.

We began the article by defining computational linguistics and concluded it with a fantasy, a computer program so powerful that it was capable of reading Shakespeare texts in a way that was interesting but not human. We called it Prospero. It was a reasonable fantasy at the time. I figured that we might have such a Prospero system in twenty years. Hays knew better and refused to put dates on such fantasies.

He was right. Do the math. The article, Computational Linguistics for the Humanist, was published in 1976; twenty years from then would have been 1996. Nothing remotely like the Prospero we’d envisioned was available then. Nor is it available now, almost forty years since we published that article. I have no idea when, if ever, such a wonder will be possible.

Just why I got it so wrong – beyond the usual youth and foolishness – is not obvious. And I can’t quite remember how I thought about such things in those days. But I suspect one factor is that I didn’t realize then, as I do know, that a Prospero simulation would require a simulation of the human mind. All of it, more or less. I was thinking that, if we could do language, we could do Prospero. And, after all, language isn’t all of what we are.

No, it isn’t. But there is more to a Shakespeare play than the language in which it is written and spoken. To a first approximation, there is all that it means to be human, certainly no more, and not much less.

Why then am I trotting out this failed thought experiment? Its failure is beside the point. To be sure, this is a new and improved version, but the improvements do nothing to stave off that failure. No, I trot it out because it IS a thought experiment, and thought experiments can be useful. The object of this experiment is to think about literature and its study in a fairly general way.

Literature may be about living life, in some sense it may even BE living life, but the study of literature is at one remove from that. Prospero is an attempt to clarify that difference.

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