Week 1 wrap-up: Salutations!

After students in the digital storytelling course ds106 have risen to the challenge of setting up their own web domains, installing WordPress, and started blogging, what words of encouragement would you have for them as they embark on a journey of investigating storytelling and artificial intelligence?

We made it through the first week of ds106, with struggles and triumphs. I thought I might try to put together a few quick thoughts.

I was happy with the variety of films people chose to review. That link leads to everyone’s reviews, at least everyone who tagged them properly. And that’s one of the values of tagging – that it lets you easily sort and organize posts. I was surprised by the number of optimistic views of AI people found. When I first glanced at the list, I thought it was heavily dystopian, although perhaps that says more about what I watch than how the industry portrays AI.

Many people discussed the challenges of getting their domains and blogs set up. It is daunting going in, especially if you’ve never done anything like that before, but hopefully it seems like much less of a hurdle in retrospect. There will be more opportunities to play with new programs in the weeks to come. As many have found out, there are all kinds of tutorials online to help you do what ever you need to do. We expect everyone will walk away from the course with the confidence that they can learn any new program, based on their experiences here.

Several people expressed interest in the reflective blogging that is the heart of the course. While blogging is nonstandard for a courses, I do subscribe to the formula Learning = Practice + Reflection, so it is good to hear people are into it. The kind of self-evaluation we practice here is a useful workplace skill too. Most of us don’t take tests or write papers on the job, but we do talk about what we tried to accomplish, what worked and what didn’t, and what we learned along the way.

Our blogs are also one of our platforms for class discussion. We post our thoughts, and we comment on the posts of others. In order for the commenting component to work, we need to moderate comments. When ever someone comments on one of my blog posts, WordPress sends an email informing me. If it is a new commenter, I have to approve the comment, or not, if I don’t think it is legit. Once a commenter is approved, I don’t have to approve them again. I can remove comments though, should I feel the need. The point of this is we need to look for those emails. The UMW email system may route them to the junk folder. Hopefully we can train it not to.

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“Well done on exploring your artistic side”

A creepy-looking cartoon character holding a pole, with a large bowl of yellow fluid in the foreground

image produced by Craiyon

Today’s Daily Create was to pull random words from various radio stations and use them as inspiration for a poem. I didn’t really pay attention and immediately went to the radio.garden site to check out stations around the world, or at least around my corner of the globe. Since I didn’t pay attention, I grabbed sentences rather than individual words:

  • Come into my work and I’ll be your server
    from CJIQ, Kitchener, Ontario
  • Too bad for the fool-hearted clown!
    from Cuzin Vinny, Milford DE
  • Even living for God we go through the motions
    from Plateau Community Radio, Oak Hill WV
  • Milk and honey and Captain Crunch and you in the morning
    from CFRY, Portage la Prarie, Manitoba
  • My choice is that they matter
    from YPR FM, Bilings MT

Two lines are song lyrics, two are from talk radio and the other was a radio preacher. I left the lines in the order that I found them. There is a sense of poetry within the lines, and a sense of rhythm that almost makes them work together, but I’m not getting any kind of meaning from it. It might help to rearrange some of the lines, and it would definitely help to edit it, using the found lines as a starting place.

I asked Dr. Oblivion for his feedback:

Oh, how wonderful that you created an abstract poem.
It sounds like an interesting collection of random sentences you heard on the radio.
I appreciate your creativity in combining them together.
In poetry, the meaning can often be subjective and reflect what the reader interprets from it.
So it’s up to you what you want to convey with these sentences.
Well done on exploring your artistic side.
If you have any questions related to art, technology, media or artificial intelligence, feel free to ask.

I think I got the good Dr. Oblivion as opposed to the snarky Dr. Oblivion, but I’ve heard from the latter so much that I can’t help but hear snark in his tone. Going a step further, I asked ChatGPT to make a poem using those lines:

In the realm of hustle, where dreams may swerve,
Come into my work, and I’ll be your server.
Too bad for the fool-hearted clown,
Lost in a circus, wearing a painted frown.

Even living for God, we go through the motions,
Seeking divine whispers in life’s vast oceans.
Milk and honey, and Captain Crunch in the morning light,
A sweet symphony, a breakfast delight.

My choice is that they matter, each line, each rhyme,
Echoes of moments frozen in the tapestry of time.
In the choices we make, in the stories we weave,
A reminder that our lives, too, can deceive.

The rhythm and rhyme are better, but I don’t think the poem is actually improved. The problem, I think, is that the artistic intent is missing. The machine can mimic the forms of poetry and string words together in a statistically coherent manner, but it’s not expressing anything. Its output is as devoid of meaning as the input. Any meaning that might be found would be projected my the reader. Which is pretty much what the doctor said.

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“Don’t touch my hair”

Image of a robot figure in the foreground of a landscape painting, working at a table creating a painting of its own.Something I was reading the other day included the term “artificial creativity” as a description of AI generated art. I liked the term and googled it, and ended up signing up for a coursera on it. It talks about the Turing test and asks if a machine can be creative. I’m of the general opinion that the creativity lies in the person using the machine – the painter, not the paintbrush. Maybe they’ll change or broaden my mind though.

One of the activities was to play with a GPT-2 app, in which you put some starter text and let the program produce more. Being lazy, I didn’t bother coming up with my own starter text, but instead copied stuff from the web. I tried a sentence from Darwin Among the Machines, something from The Futurist Manifesto, and some song lyrics. The outputs generally conformed to the style and tended to be predictable and bland. I think Dr. Oblivion is several steps above because he has some personality parameters that color his output.

It did make a curious shift when I gave it lyrics:

So take my hand
You can use my strength to stand
We will make it one more day
I promise we’ll make it one more day
(from https://tomjolu.com/one-more-day/)

Generated by https://app.inferkit.com/demo:

“Fight for what’s right
Treat people with kindness
What you do today
Will be what you’ll do tomorrow

Be yourself
Don’t let other people
Turn you into something else
Be true to yourself
Don’t worry about what other people think
Yes I know I will
I know I will
I promise we will
One more day
One more day
One more day

On second thought
Don’t touch my hair
It’s a sacred thing
Keep out of harm’s way
And if it gets caught up
You’ll feel like death
There is no smooth road in this life
You must take the crooked paths if you want to walk
There are no shortcuts
You must fight for what you want
And whatever

It started out with a positive vibe and followed the rhythm of the language, sort of, and added the kind of repetition you’d hear in a song. The “On second thought” verse seems to take a darker turn and isn’t quite coherent. The app limits the number of characters it will return so I guess it just cut off after “and whatever” but I like the noncommittalness of the ending. It just torpedoes any meaning the verse might have had.

What I see here is the machine being creative in the sense that it generated text, but it did it without any intent, artistic or otherwise. The art, the aesthetic, as I see it, lies in the human input and the human experience of the machine output. The machine and the output are then like carving tools and clay that an artist can use.

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Just because we can doesn’t mean we should

In our ds106 noontime coffee chat yesterday we talked a little about the potential impact of AI on art. This made me think of the Folk RNN project from a few years ago. They trained a neural network on a database of fiddle tunes and had it generate new tunes and titles. I remember finding one, “The Drunken Pint.” The title caught my attention as it indicates that the app recognized a relationship between words but not the meaning. I tried to play the tune, but it didn’t sound right with my limited skill, so I asked an actual musician to try it. Something about it still didn’t sound right. In all likelihood it’s just me, but most of the computer generated tunes sounded off. I think it’s the quick beats, the triplets and sixteenth notes, and their placement that does it. They sometimes feel like a Max Headroom style hiccup or stutter.

I stumbled upon a video on the Folk RNN backstory:

This piece below the video caught my eye. It’s the new magic number:screenshot of text saying: folk-rnn - the backstory The Bottomless Tune Box 106 subscribersI liked the part about ethics, and how it only occurred to them afterwards. I suspect that this is not unusual. People decide to do things because they can, without thinking about whether or not they should. I remember hearing someone say about Zuckerberg that many people could have built what he did, but they all had the good sense not to. Writers and storytellers have a role here in contemplating and illustrating the possibilities. What could go wrong? So much of AI in fiction tends to be dystopian, which suggests that a lot could go wrong. And most of those tales were written before  people started thinking about the ecological/environmental impacts.

And in a bit of serendipity, I also saw this yesterday:

image of Mastoddon post saying “Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Susan Sontag, who would have been 91 today, on storytelling, what it means to be a decent human being, and her advice to writers https://t.co/seF8mVdgp4Maria Popova is a good one to follow on Mastodon, if you’re interested in ongoing enlightenment. The article, Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Good Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers, is actually from a few years ago, but was highlighted because it was Sontag’s birthday. The article referenced, At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning is in the Files section of Canvas because I thought it might be a good reading for the course, as it questions some of the potentials of digital storytelling and the web. Maybe those questions could be applied to AI as well.

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Ghosts of future past

For an AI-related movie, I watched the anime version of Ghost in the Shell, a late 20th century vision of five years from now. I hadn’t watched or read it before, so it was about time. I noticed echoes of Bladerunner, RoboCop and The Matrix. The film was based on a manga which seems to unwittingly comment on our current situation.

Manga panel with a character saying "What the hell's going on here? That's just a goddamn teach-mech!"

image from Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow

and also echoes Darwin Among the Machines from 160 years ago:

series of manga panels showing a discussion among robots, saying: Sure! Humans are a pain in the bearings to maintain, so rather than controlling them, we should annihilate them! To make matters easier, we can just trick them into quarreling among themselves - then they'll kill off each other! But wait,,, if there aren't any humans around, we'd have to do our own maintenance, develop our own accessories, and even change our own oil... Maybe we should keep them as slaves... But they're already doing those things, without our controlling or enslaving them.

image from Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow

Beyond the thematic references, I was interested in the philosophical musings on evolution, life and humanity. The hero of the story is a cyborg, essentially a robot with a human brain. Is she then human? She’s not so sure:

Major Motoko Kusanagi: Well, I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.

Batou: You’ve got human brain cells in that titanium shell of yours. You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?

Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?

And that refers to the AI in the film, the Puppet Master

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

quotes from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ghost_in_the_Shell_(film)

Could we draw a parallel between GPT and DNA? I’m out of my element here of course, but I see in both an encoding of the existing and the production of something new. The issue of memory is significant too. We used to preserve memories with film photography. This had imperfections, but was based on physical reality. The photos I take with my phone are mediated through algorithms, and have been known reinterpret reality.

So I asked our teach-mech Dr. Oblivion, “How does the vision of artificial intelligence presented in Ghost in the Shell hold up in the present day?”

includes sample of Ghosthack from Ghost In The Shell (1995) OST

I think if I asked a better question, I might have gotten a better response. AI apps aren’t known for insight, and sometimes give us the most obvious string of words. Will our AI future be dystopian, or just disappointing?

The doctor does touch on an important point. We built the internet in order to augment human intelligence. Around the time of Ghost in the Shell, we opened it up to commercial exploitation, and a few people became unimaginably wealthy. For the past couple decades, more and more it’s been developed as a tool for social control. So who is the web for? Who is AI for? In ds106 we all have our own little pieces of the web, as it was meant to be. Entities like Alphabet and Amazon and Meta and Microsoft come along like Columbus and plant a flag in it and claim it for their own. Do we go along with that, or do we want open, public infrastructure? The easy path may not be the most rewarding.

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AI106 test again

testing… testing

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… Part 3

The Daily Create for today asked us to explain cheerfulness. I thought Ian Dury and the Blockheads did an admirable job of this many years ago:

I didn’t think I could top that, so I wondered what I could make out of it. A GIF? Probably not good enough. What if I threw a couple lines of lyrics into an image generator?

I tried it with Craiyon and Gencraft (a new one on me), and neither of them handled the terms well. I was hoping for some crazy juxtapositions or combinations, but instead they appeared to just take one term and ignore the others. Gencraft gave me two images, one of some ballet dancers in a room and one of a goat in a palais other than Hammersmith, I suspect. I layered the two together in photoshop, along with the lyric prompt. And that’s what we get. But, what would Michael Bay do?


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“How… creative”

Earlier today Michael Branson Smith brought his Dr. Oblivion bot to life on the web. Cogdog had the doctor produce an ode to HTML:

Which was great. We had talked about having students submit their work to Dr. Oblivion for feedback, so here was an opportunity to try it out:

That little pause between how and creative is perfect. OK, but what more could I do with this? Well, I could find an open source backing track from bensound that sounded appropriate for beatnik poetry and put it all together:

Something tells me it will be an interesting semester.

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Zine vs machine

I hadn’t paid much attention to zines until recently. The Gettin’ Air episode with Dr. Anne Pasek talked about a zine-based conference raised my interest, and then some criticisms of our library brochure led me to slap together to above zine thing.  Today I heard about the HTML Zine Club and thought it had possibilities.

I wonder if we might use this with ds106. There is a category for code assignments, but I’ve never done anything with it due to my ineptitude. It could also work under web assignments which I’ve given minimal attention. There is a primitiveness to the zine concept, a punk-rock anyone-can-do-it aesthetic, that suits a basic HTML page.

I was thinking it might work in AI106 as a rebel action – fight back against the machine by taking control of the inner workings, or something like that. It might be a Luddite move, or a way of infiltrating a Luddite group.
If we do it late in the semester it could be a way of bringing together previous work and creations in a low tech way, a handmade web page substituting for a handmade zine, presenting some sort of narrative. It’s something to think about

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The good people at Metafilter introduced me to NEEDS MORE BOOM today, which will apparently script Bayhem into any movie scene. My first thought was to see what it would do with Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” scene, which came out okay.

So what might it do with Radio Raheem?

The output is below. Not really what I expected. It somehow feels happier. I’m wondering how this might be used in AI106. Could this be built upon, illustrated and visualized? Sweded? Or made into an audio production?

The Love and Hate soliloquy scene with Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing
directed by Michael Bay

The neon sign outside the pizzeria flickers, casting a menacing glow on RADIO RAHEEM’S face as he enters, wielding his BOOMBOX like a weapon.

Raheem’s music clashes with the rock ballad playing inside, causing an eerie dissonance. He’s a tower of a man, decked out in rings. A DRONE shot reveals two rings: one that reads “LOVE”, the other “HATE”.

You see these? These are my rings.

Sal looks disinterested, wiping down the counter. Raheem turns up the volume on his boombox, causing the chandelier to vibrate.

This here is LOVE. And this…HATE.

Suddenly, a low angle shot shows the LOVE ring activate, glowing bright as it projects a holographic story. It’s a modern Romeo and Juliet tale, except with more explosions. Laughter, love, then tragedy.

Love always wins. Always.

Sal rolls his eyes. Raheem steps closer, the floor creaking under his weight. The HATE ring activates, projecting an equally explosive war scene filled with missiles and robots.

Hate is everywhere. But love? Love is stronger.

Suddenly, the Italian opera aria crescendos, and the ceiling fan spins out of control, then EXPLODES. Everyone ducks for cover.

Sal raises an eyebrow at Raheem, dusting plaster off his apron.

So what? You a philosopher now?

Just speaking truth, Sal.

A close-up of the LOVE ring glowing, Raheem slams his fist on the counter. The BOOM causes the plates on the wall to quiver.

Love is a powerful thing.

Suddenly, the ground rumbles, and a CAR bursts through the wall, chased by a ROBOT DOG. The two tumble out into the street, causing a fantastic EXPLOSION.

Sal and Raheem look at each other, then back at the wall.

Well, that was unexpected.

As they walk outside to assess the damage, a small PIZZA BOX near the counter ticks ominously, followed by a tiny, yet impactful EXPLOSION, sending bits of cheese and tomato sauce flying.


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