Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sunspring: can AI write screenplays?
In the last couple of days many are talking about Sunspring, a short film whose screenplay has been written by a neural network (for more details see arstechnica). This means that someone fed an AI with the scripts of may sci-fi films, gave some fundamental instructions and let the AI create an imitative text. The result was a quite surreal screenplay, that was turned into this short film:

After watching the film, take some time to read carefully the script, shown at the beginning of the video. After all, that is the only part actually created by the neural network (together with the lyrics of the song).
It is immediately evident that the AI is not the author of the short film. This is generally true for the scriptwriter of any film - the latter are always texts with multiple authors (cast, director etc.) - but even more in this case. The cast and the crew of Sunspring made a huge work of interpretation to make the screenplay work. They've drawn isotopies, changed wrong pronouns and tried to give a visual existence to sentences like "taking his eyes from his mouth". It is these interpretations and the acting (that charged emotionally random sentences and transformed them into a dialogue) that make the film (kind of) meaningful. In other words, the people who worked at the film provided to the film what Eco called intentio auctoris, the author's intention.The director himself stated that thank to the work of the cast "somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world".
The result is still an open text, that requires the audience to put together the loosely connected parts of the film and make sense of it (it is the so called intentio lectoris). This is also what gives the feeling of being confronted with an "artistic" film: it is open to many different interpretations and therefore it is able to generate new meaning (which is, roughly, Juri Lotman's definition of artistic text).
Finally, there is the intentio operis, the meaning that rises from the text itself. If we focus on the screenplay itself this may be particularly interesting. The text was built upon recurrent paths found by the AI (that calls itself Benjamin) in similar texts. 
We could argue that what neural networks do is to try to find out what is that makes an "architext" (Genette's word for a genre). In particular, Benjamin had to find out what are the features of a screenplay (1st architext) and what are the characteristics of science fiction (2nd architext).
On the one hand Benjamin's screenplay follows the structure of other screenplays: action, dialogues, indication of who is saying/doing what and so on. Apparently the rules of this stylistic architext were easy to reconstruct for the neural network, which followed them strictly and with success.
On the other hand, the AI also had to recognise what features are typical of sci-fi. As Oscar Sharp, the director of the film, points out "There's an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, 'No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,' (...) They're questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There's a pattern in sci-fi films of characters trying to understand the environment". 
Additionally there is the use of a certain keywords such as "spaceship" and "stars" even if it happens always out of context. There is also a certain measure of conflict and romance - that becomes more evident in the film because is recognised and stressed by the authors. Despair is also featured, when the character named H points a shotgun in his mouth and when he cries looking at his backpack (?).
Much of the meaning stored in the text, therefore, is the result of the imitation of the rules of these two architexs. This brings us to the last question: in what measure Benjamin is an author?
For Sharp and Goodwin (the AI specialist that built the network), Benjamin is something in between. It is not a "real" author because it would have to be able to create something original, while Benjamin only remixes statistically relevant elements of what others have written. We could argue, however, that that's what every author does, exploiting elements from its own encyclopaedia (for semioticians it's the sum of all its previous knowledge) and combining them through linguistic and stylistic rules that he or she reconstructed from the use made by other authors. Where is the difference, then?
The difference is that Benjamin - despite its human name and the ease with which we tend to consider it an individual - is something automatic, which means, it doesn't know what it is doing. Meaning-creation is also a matter of interpretation, operated primarily by the author itself. 
Benjamin however is not able to make sense of what it reads and even less of what it writes. That's why its text lacks so much in coherence, and that's why it is the film-makers and the audience that have to draw their own isotopies in order to give a meaningful axis of the process (the chronological, cause/effect development of the text) to the statistically selected elements of the system (the parts of the text that the AI retrieved from other screenplays).
Benjamin is not an author, then, even if it can be used as one. It could, however, be an extremely interesting tool for semiotic analysis and, in particular, a way to point out structural commonalities between huge amount of texts. It could be a valid help to semioticians that would like to support they qualitative analysis with quantitative data.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

 New book: Urban Gamification

Today, one year has passed since the workshop "Mettiamo in Gioco la Città" was organised by my colleagues from CIRCe and myself (you can find all the materials online, videos, photos, pics, abstracts... alas only in Italian). After the success of the workshop, we decided to continue the project and to dedicate a book to the challenging topic of urban gamification. For a happy coincidence, today is also the day in which that book is being published!
This work is part of the series "I Saggi di Lexia" and contains chapters by Ugo Volli, Peppino Ortoleva, Gabriele Ferri, Agata Meneghelli, Mauro Salvador, Massimo Leone, Fabio Viola, Vincenzo Idone Cassone, Simona Stano, Federica Turco, Gabriele Marino, Elsa Soro, Eleonora Chiais, Alessandra Chiappori and Marta Milia.

Here a brief preview in English:

In the last few years the boundary that separates play and everyday reality is becoming more and more thin and permeable. The importance of playfulness in society is greater than ever. This phenomenon, called ludification, seems to answer the need to resemantise (i.e. to give a new meaning) times and spaces that the digital era made indifferent and de-structured. Play appears to be able to give structure, rhythm and direction to time and space - in other words, to make sense of them. Therefore the city - the quintessential human environment, the place of experience and of the construction of autobiographies - undergoes acts of urban gamification, practices that aim at re-writing the city by the means of play. The latter is a powerful tool to act on urban areas: it is able to trace paths, to give value to places, to transform citizens into players. Ranging from flash mobs to urban games, from locative technologies to street art, playfulness invade the cities, bringing along new strategies, new values, new ways of being citizens and new interpretations of the urban areas. This book offers a collection of papers from scholars, experts and professionals that approach urban gamification in all its nuances, using the tools of semiotics, philosophy, media studies and, last but not least, game design.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016


I know I should be writing my dissertation, right now, instead of playing with photoshop. But today is a nerd festivity, May the Forth - keep it holy - and therefore the perfect occasion to launch some silly projects about Star Wars.
So, well, here it is: JangoTravels a microblog dedicated to our favourite bounty hunter and to his travels around the galaxy. 
Toyrism is a new, extremely nerdy, trend that consists in bringing some toys along, when you travel, and take pictures of them. I stumble upon this phenomenon while reading Kati Heljakka's wonderful work on toys and adult play and I thought it was exellent. And... yep, it looks definitely like something we saw in Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain...

I decided to mix this idea with another of my passions: miniatures. I always liked the resemantisation that happens when you deal with small scale objects. If you place a toy, a miniature, on ground and you look at the room from its perspective, the world will look like a pretty weird place. Table legs will become columns or towers, the carpet a forest (as Sir Terry Pratchett thought us) and so on. It is a playful practice, but also deeply semiotic - as it deals with the meaning that we give to everyday objects.
The child of these two passions is JangoTravel, where I put together my poor knowledge about photography, my poor skills with photoshop, a couple of Star Wars spaceships from Micro Machines and a lot of stupid hashtags.
Don't know about you, but I'm having fun.

May the 4th be with you !


Monday, 7 March 2016

Why study Semiotics.

I was asked to write a few lines on why I decided to study semiotics, and why this discipline is worth studying. Here a few reasons I come up with.

I personally started to study semiotics for the wrong reason. I needed 5 ects in “Philosophy” and, as I had a very bad professor of philosophy in high school, I didn't want to engage a course on the topic. Among the exams that I could choose, however, there was an exam of Semiotics of Culture by a certain Massimo Leone (a name that, at the time, didn't tell me anything). I knew almost nothing about semiotics, but I thought it was worth a try. Little I knew that that course would have changed my life.
In brief, if I should say why it is a good idea to study semiotics I would propose three simple key words: deconstruction, structural analysis and ideological objectivity. They are, of course, simplistic, but they should be enough to introduce the three features that make semiotics unique. First of all: deconstruction. When approaching a subject or studying something it is always a good idea to start by trying to demolish all the prejudices and the certainties that we might have previously established. Semiotics, dealing with meaning, signs and narratology, is up to the task. It's powerful analytic tools are able to explicit – and thus defuse – many rhetoric discourses. Ideas such as “authenticity” and “novelty” or oppositions such as “culture vs nature” are shown as what they are: inherently artificial semiotic constructions. This should not lead us to some sort of nihilism, but on the contrary, help us to admire the marvelous complexity of semiosis, the inextricably intertwined nature of signs, the industrious ability of human beings to build up semiospheres. Understanding the semiotic nature of our ideas, concepts and values doesn't diminish their value, but it spurs us to understand that their importance is, indeed, relative and that they're not “carved in stone”.
Secondly: structural analysis. I know that the word “structural” is out of fashion, today. Post-structuralism has been seen (at least oversees) as a criticism to structuralism, and today many scholars prefer biological metaphors with a positivist flavor, or images evoking “nets”, “webs” and “connections”, undoubtedly influenced by the medium (if we can call it such) that is reshaping our lives: the World Wide Web. However, I think that this old fashioned concept has still much to offer. Firstly, because, without it, meaning inevitably falls behind a wall of ineffability or, even worse, is reduced to a reductionist neurological-scientific model unable to explain the complexity of human behavior. A structural approach to signs and texts – and even to cultures – is able to reconstruct, at least partially, how these semiotics devices are constituted and, therefore, how they work. Fortunately semiotics offers many tool to analyze many different aspects of human existence from the perspective of meaning, by reconstructing their structure (not only in a structuralist way). The French School provides the tools to analyze signs and texts, Umberto Eco's work (and, before him, Peirce) to investigate how the reader react to the text, Sociosemiotics (Landowski and, from a certain point of view, Fontanille) the tools to shed some light on how semiotic activity affects society and, finally Semiotics of Culture (mainly the Tartu-Moskow Semiotic School) helps us to trace and understand the way texts (and/or modeling systems) shape and are shaped by culture and by its hierarchies and dynamics. In other words, semiotics is able to operate in all the plans of immanence (from signs to cultures) and to describe them all with an unique metalanguage. There aren't many other disciplines that could claim the same!
Finally, ideological objectivity. This last key concept is, in fact, a product of the other two. Keeping in mind that true objectivity is, of course, impossible, semiotics allows us to overcome our inevitably restricted point of view and to look “down” at the world with renewed eyes. Once our prejudices dismantled and our certainties deconstructed, armed with the proper tools, we can finally approach different cultures – and even our own – free from the restraints of our narrow point of view. As Eco claims in his a theory of semiotics - semiotics can be a valid tool to defuse the ideological discourses and promote the critical ones.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Helsinki, Semiotics and Existentialism.

This spring semester (the last, alas, of my PhD Studies!)  I'm studying and working at Helsinki University, in Finland.
The city is beautiful - breathtaking under heavy snow - and the University one of the World's top 100, which is nice. They don't have a mayor in semiotics, unfortunately, but my discipline is well represented in the Faculty of Arts and especially among musicologists. The leading scholar in my field, here, is Eero Tarasti, prominent figure in Finnish culture and, in the '70s, student of many of the structuralism forefathers - Greimas, Levi-Straus, Foucault...
2016 is his last year before retirement, unfortunately, which means that I'm very lucky to be able to attend his farewell lectures. 

 In the picture: me, my beard and Eero Tarasti's portrait.

Tarasti has worked a lot on semiotics of music, which, although fascinating, is not particularly useful for my research. In the last years, however, he also developed a new semiotic theory called existential semiotics, that addresses also some issues that are of central importance fro game studies (like corporeality, norms and rules, appearance and many others). While I start to finally write down my dissertation, I will also try to learn something ore of this new exiting theory from a first hand source...

Other than that, the University is a dream for every visiting doc student, here just a couple of its perks:
-graduate students are considered like staff, meaning that you get actually helpful people helping you with all the bureaucratic stuff.
 -great places to live in. Thanks to the above point you are allowed to live in researcher's residences like TöölöTowers, which, although not more expensive that any other place in Helsinki (which is a damn expensive city), are a warm, new, clean and friendly new home, with breakfast included and sauna twice a week.
-a very good library, with open access shelves, easy-to-find books and a great variety of books about semiotics, almost always present in the original language, English translation and Finnish translation.
-finally, for less misanthropist people than me, there are also a huge lot of student organizations and activities available.

Finnish people are mush less solitary than they claim and are generally very friendly. The amount of Italian speakers among them, moreover, never cease to amaze me.

And then, of course, maybe my favourite Finnish thing so far: the marvellous frozen Baltic sea...

Friday, 22 January 2016

From the Strong part II: images of play.

One of my favourite part of my stay at the Strong - which is also the main reason of my visit - is the opportunity to handle play-related fascinating artifacts, some of which pretty ancient, and almost all extremely interesting.
With the permission of the museum I decided to share with you some pictures of the most interesting artifacts I come in contact with in these days.

As all the non-exposed toys are in the awesome, but not easy-to-access, warehouse I told you about in the last post, I worked a lot with toy catalogs, that have the advantage of showing a vast sychronic set of toys and, on the other hand, to carry with them a series of paratextual indications that can say very much about how people used to think about toys.

One of my favourite catalogs is the Illustrated catalogue of soft and hard rubber goods, dating 1869 (!) 
Here a picture of the cover:

This catalog was clearly aiming at rich people (one of the internal advertisement referred to Napoleon the 3rd!) and reflected their customs and their fashion. The lead toys in teh catalog are undoubtedly dolls: baby dolls, adult dolls, dressed, naked, black and white, jointed and not and sometimes limited to doll heads. Probably 19th century girls, like an army of little drs Frankensteins, used to decapitate their dolls to change their heads. Not so different from what we do to Lego figures, but still, when dolls are involved its easy to slide down the uncanny valley.

Another ancient and fascinating catalog is Tinker Toys catalog from 1936. Tinker toys were extremely popular -with more than a million set sold - especially in the first half of the 20th century. The catalog, although simple, is very picturesque and cute, a little treasure.

This is why it has been a little bit sad to find this announcement in another Tinkertoy catalog a few year younger:
In accord with the conservation of material and manpower, the Tinkertoy Line for 1942 has been brought down to four prime Construction Sets, for which supplies are still available. There are illustrated on the following pages.
Because copper, brass and steel are under priority rulings, the the Tinkertoy Spring and Electric Motor outfits have necessarily been discontinued. (…)
Due to generally increased cost, it has not been possible to maintain the old scale of prices. The revised figures, as shown on the current lists are, under prevailing conditions, the low at which Tinkertoys can be made and sold.” 

 War doesn't spare toys, apparently.

On the other hand Toys still like war, or at least they like to represent it, as it is clear from this picture from Sears Christmas book 1956.

In the years after the war there has been a boom of war-related toys, allowing children to explore the new myth (as Roland Barthes would call it) that had become so important in western cultural narrations.
If someone still shrink at the idea of "war toys" (and unfortunately many people still do), they should keep in mind what Sutton-Smith himself claimed, that: toys as such do not dominate play, "rather, the toys are transformed by the experienced players to suit their own imaginative convenience. The toys are an agency for imagination; the do not make the imagination their victim as is implied in much intellectual prejudice.” (Toy as Culture, p. 204).

Another jewel of The Strong collection is the first Lego catalog ever published in America. Samsonite had been charged by Lego to produce their toys on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and a manual presenting Lego was published to introduce the European toy to American toy-shops owners.

Being a big Lego fan myself (I've also published a short critical note on them, this year) I was quite exited to have this item in my hands.

The collections storage of the Strong, as I already told in last post, is full of treasures, a real Ali Baba's cavern, a Paese dei Balocchi (Pinocchio Toy Land).
I've had the occasion to spend some entertaining hours down there, guided by fantastic Chistopher Bensch (the Vice President for Collections of The Strong) and to see - and photograph - many interesting items.

The hugest collection I saw it was probably the Barbie on, counting something like 2500 single pieces.
Some of the where pretty funny, like this Oreo Barbie...

What's about these biscuits anyway? I don't think that they are that good, but OMG there are any kind of products dedicated to them!

Another interesting doll it this prophetic looking Barbie for President 2000:
Doesn't she look like Hillary? :P
In any case, I was pleased to see that there is a "presidential" version of Barbie for every election - even if, apparently, she never wins...

Among all the Barbie I saw, however, ma favorite is this one:

It's not because she is disabled, but I genuinely think that she's the most friendly looking of all (and the best dressed too...).

The other collections I focused on were the Fisher price collection (you can see here a beatuful ancient wooden circus set) and the Donald Duck collection.

Finally, even if I was supposed to focus on toys, my geekness exploded in sight of the wonderful Andrew Cosman-Mary Valentine Game Collection comprehensive of more than 600 war, strategy, and other types of complex games: a true nerdgasm. I gave up immediately any resistance and just started to look at all those amazing games jumping up and down as a little boy in a toy store...

This collection has also its own fellowship so I'm seriously considering the idea to apply for a next round at The Strong, just to focus on strategy games... Rochester isn't around the corner, that's also true, but I guess I'd be willing to cross the ocean for 600 wargames! =)