Skip to main content

Twitterbots - Tony Veale and Mike Cook ***

This is an odd one. It's an in-depth look at Twitterbots - applications designed to post on Twitter making human-like pronouncements. We start with a really interesting, if highly verbose introductory section about these programs, introducing me to lots of examples I hadn't come across. I particularly liked the historical examples of condensing a message with humour (and a bit of intellectual oddity) in the Latin punning telegraph messages that seem to have been briefly popular amongst the British establishment in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1856, when the British annexed the Indian province of Oudh (rhymes with loud), the governor-general sent the message 'Vovi.' This means 'I have vowed'... which sounds distinctly like 'I have Oudh.'

Then we plunge into the mechanics of Twitterbot construction. Tony Veale and Mike Cook, two British/Irish academics writing with a distinctly transatlantic style, give us detailed guidance on simplistic bot production using simple templates and collections of words or phrases, and also explore some more sophisticated methods using Java.

The book then turns into an exploration of the way that a program can build language structures - the kind of categorisation needed to provide a tweet builder with a 'Lego set' of appropriate words and phrases and the way it's possible to use some of the classic (if slightly hackneyed) academic breakdowns of stories, plots and characters to generate a pseudo-story format out of components (if you've read one of those 'how to write a novel' books that breaks down a hero's journey or whatever, into standard stages, you'll know the kind of thing).

What we end up with is a mix of an investigation of the world of Twitterbots, a how-to manual to get started writing your own code for them, and an analysis of just how much story can be broken down and built up in this component fashion. I found the presentation over-wordy and rather too academic in approach - but nonetheless interesting.

What the authors don't do - perhaps because they themselves are part of this scene - is some kind of psychological analysis of the nature of adults spending a lot of time on what is, in the end, the generation of rather weak snippets of writing that are only occasionally mildly amusing. The only reason the resultant tweets are of interest is because they're machine produced. It's rather like Samuel Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs: it's not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…