Tag Archives: folklore

Computational Folkloristics

hca_by_thora_hallager_1869What do you get when you set AI (artificial intelligence) the task of reading through 30,000 Danish folk and fairy tales? Well, you get a host of fascinating, newly discovered insights into Scandinavian witches and trolls.

More importantly, you hammer another nail into the coffin of literary criticism and set AI on a collision course with yet another preserve of once exclusive human endeavor. It’s probably safe to assume that creative writing will fall to intelligent machines in the not too distant future (as well) — certainly human-powered investigative journalism seemed to became extinct in 2016; replaced by algorithmic aggregation, social bots and fake-mongers.

From aeon:

Where do witches come from, and what do those places have in common? While browsing a large collection of traditional Danish folktales, the folklorist Timothy Tangherlini and his colleague Peter Broadwell, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to find out. Armed with a geographical index and some 30,000 stories, they developed WitchHunter, an interactive ‘geo-semantic’ map of Denmark that highlights the hotspots for witchcraft.

The system used artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to unearth a trove of surprising insights. For example, they found that evil sorcery often took place close to Catholic monasteries. This made a certain amount of sense, since Catholic sites in Denmark were tarred with diabolical associations after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. By plotting the distance and direction of witchcraft relative to the storyteller’s location, WitchHunter also showed that enchantresses tend to be found within the local community, much closer to home than other kinds of threats. ‘Witches and robbers are human threats to the economic stability of the community,’ the researchers write. ‘Yet, while witches threaten from within, robbers are generally situated at a remove from the well-described village, often living in woods, forests, or the heath … it seems that no matter how far one goes, nor where one turns, one is in danger of encountering a witch.’

Such ‘computational folkloristics’ raise a big question: what can algorithms tell us about the stories we love to read? Any proposed answer seems to point to as many uncertainties as it resolves, especially as AI technologies grow in power. Can literature really be sliced up into computable bits of ‘information’, or is there something about the experience of reading that is irreducible? Could AI enhance literary interpretation, or will it alter the field of literary criticism beyond recognition? And could algorithms ever derive meaning from books in the way humans do, or even produce literature themselves?

Author and computational linguist Inderjeet Mani concludes his essay thus:

Computational analysis and ‘traditional’ literary interpretation need not be a winner-takes-all scenario. Digital technology has already started to blur the line between creators and critics. In a similar way, literary critics should start combining their deep expertise with ingenuity in their use of AI tools, as Broadwell and Tangherlini did with WitchHunter. Without algorithmic assistance, researchers would be hard-pressed to make such supernaturally intriguing findings, especially as the quantity and diversity of writing proliferates online.

In the future, scholars who lean on digital helpmates are likely to dominate the rest, enriching our literary culture and changing the kinds of questions that can be explored. Those who resist the temptation to unleash the capabilities of machines will have to content themselves with the pleasures afforded by smaller-scale, and fewer, discoveries. While critics and book reviewers may continue to be an essential part of public cultural life, literary theorists who do not embrace AI will be at risk of becoming an exotic species – like the librarians who once used index cards to search for information.

Read the entire tale here.

Image: Portrait of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Courtesy: Thora Hallager, 10/16 October 1869. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Dragons of the Mind

From the Wall Street Journal:

Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movie is on its way, and with it will come the resurrection of the vile dragon Smaug. With fiery breath, razor-sharp claws, scales as hard as shields and a vast underground lair, Smaug is portrayed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s text as a merciless killer. But where did the idea for such a bizarre beast—with such an odd mixture of traits—come from in the first place?

Historically, most monsters were spawned not from pure imagination but from aspects of the natural world that our ancestors did not understand. Whales seen breaking the surface of the ancient oceans were sea monsters, the fossilized bones of prehistoric humans were the victims of Medusa, the roars of earthquakes were thought to emanate from underground beasts. The list goes on. But tracing Smaug’s draconic heritage is more complicated.

At first glance, dinosaurs seem the obvious source for the dragon myth. Our ancestors simply ran into Tyrannosaur skulls, became terrified and came up with the idea that such monsters must still be around. It all sounds so logical, but it’s unlikely to be true.

Dragon myths were alive and well in the ancient Mediterranean world, despite the fact that the region is entirely bereft of dinosaur fossils. The Assyrians had Tiamat, a giant snake with horns (leading some to dispute whether it even qualifies as a dragon). The Greeks, for their part, had a fierce reptilian beast that guarded the golden fleece. In depicting it, they oscillated between a tiny viper and a huge snake capable of swallowing people whole. But even in this latter case, there was no fire-breathing or underground hoard, just a big reptile.

For decades, zoologists have argued that the only snakes humans ever had to seriously worry about were of the venomous variety. Last year, however, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that members of Indonesian tribes are regularly eaten by enormous constrictors and that this was likely a common problem throughout human evolution. Moreover, reports by Pliny the Elder and others describe snakes of such size existing in the ancient Mediterranean world and sometimes attacking people. It seems likely that the early dragon myths were based on these real reptilian threats.

But Tolkien’s Smaug lives below the Lonely Mountain and breathes fire. Some reptiles live below ground, but none breathes anything that looks remotely like flame. Yet as strange as this trait may seem, it too may have natural origins.

Among the earliest mythical dragons that lived underground are those found in the 12th-century tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth recounts the story of Vortigern, an ancient British king who was forced to flee to the hills of Wales as Saxons invaded. Desperate to make a final stand, Vortigern orders a fortress to be built, but its walls keep falling over. Baffled, Vortigern seeks the advice of his wise men, who tell him that the ground must be consecrated with the blood of a child who is not born from the union between a man and a woman. Vortigern agrees and sends the wise men off to find such a child.

Not far away, in the town of Carmarthen, they come across two boys fighting. One insults the other as a bastard who has no father, and the wise men drag him back to Vortigern.

When the boy learns that he is to be killed, he tells Vortigern that his advisers have got things wrong. He declares that there are dragons below the ground and that their wrestling with one another is what keeps the walls from standing. Vortigern tests the boy’s theory out, and sure enough, as his men dig deeper, they discover the dragons’ “panting” flames.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Zmey Gorynych, the Russian three-headed dragon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle