Author: Omar Shehata

Artificial Intelligence aids human creativity

A few months ago we saw the release of “Sunspring,” a short science fiction movie written entirely by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). This month researchers at Sony released a couple of pop songs composed by their A.I. This is scary news for a lot of artists who feel that it’s already hard enough to get noticed without having to compete against both man and machine. Computers have been getting smarter since their invention, and that’s usually a good thing when they take on the laborious work that humans do only begrudgingly. In most cases it leads to society producing more with less effort, and more people being able to dedicate their time to creative and fulfilling work. But what happens when computers start encroaching on these creative careers?

It’s easy to be afraid of things we don’t understand. Sony’s technical accomplishment does not mean machines are replacing or even coming close to competing with humans creatively. It’s not even a step in that direction. To understand why, let’s consider a famous thought experiment known as “The Chinese Room.” A person sits down at a desk in a room. They are given pieces of paper with Chinese text written on them through a slot in the door. This person then consults a giant list of instructions on how to respond to any given set of characters. They staple together the characters to form a response and slip it back out through the door. Given clever enough instructions, this person can carry on an intelligent conversation in Chinese, despite the fact that they have no idea what the characters mean.

This is largely all a machine can do – follow simple instructions. When software engineers talk about terms like “machine learning,” it’s just referring to the software collecting more and more data from which to draw conclusions. This process is exactly how the researchers at Sony designed their program to compose music. It pulls from a huge song database of various artists and styles. This database could be annotated with information like the popularity or genre of songs. The software then simply tries to put together melodies that are similar enough to what it knows and combine them in new ways.

Some would argue that this isn’t any different from how humans learn and produce creative work. After all, most of our work is inspired by other people’s work mixed together with our own personal experiences. But the point is that we really don’t know how humans produce original, innovative ideas. The golden rule in computer science is that you cannot get a machine to do anything that you cannot explain and articulate as a simple set of instructions. If we don’t have the faintest idea of how the creative process works, then there’s no way we can get a computer to do it.

So if computers are so dumb, and they’re bad at doing creative things, how come we’ve seen such great feats in the past few years? These achievements can only be accomplished when humans collaborate with machines. The real world is a tangled mess of data. Computers help us sift through that and make meaningful connections. Computers are great at the former, we’re great at the latter. This is known as augmented intelligence. In fact, this is how the Sony research team intends for this software to be used – to enhance rather than to replace our skills. The songs that were released weren’t created completely by the A.I. The lyrics were written by an artist, who also tweaked and polished the A.I. produced songs.

The research team is trying to create a music authoring tool for humans to use as an aid in creativity – not to replace us. Machine intelligence will never beat human ingenuity.

A great example of this is Spotify’s music recommendation system. Engineers in the music industry struggled for decades to create an algorithm that understands music tastes. In the end, engineers at Spotify realized they could get much better results by using the playlists that its users made. If you make a playlist that has a couple of songs that I really like, I’d probably like to hear more like it. So the process was a joint effort of humans making meaningful connections and computers sifting through the tangles of data. There’s no need for humans to compete with machines. The future is in the hands of those who can work together to produce things that neither human nor machine can do on their own.

Omar Shehata ’18 ( is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in computer science and mathematics.

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Theatre Engine puts audience in control

Imagine a dance performance where the audience had control over the lights, or where audience members could decide what the dancers would do next, or even control their movements directly. It sounds like it could be very bizarre and chaotic, and, in some ways, that’s what “Theatre Engine” is. The innovative show premiered on Saturday, March 7 at Dittmann Center, combining cutting edge tools of technology with the age-old urge to move our bodies.

The project began two years ago when Todd Edwards, the designer and technical director for the St. Olaf Theater Department ran into faculty from Michigan State University at a conference, who at the time were beginning to work on the idea of an interactive, multimedia performance. The result was a collaborative effort that involved Michigan State, St. Olaf and Brigham Young University to develop and research this type of performance.

The performance was framed by 30 chairs set up in a square formation around the dance area in Dittmann’s Studio One. Audience members in those chairs were given Android tablets, each connecting to the unique ID of that audience member’s chair. The rest of the audience could watch, but not interact.

Director of the program Alison Dobbins, from Michigan State University, introduced the performance and emphasized that it is a highly experimental research project. She urged audience members to actively participate, but left out the details, opting to let the audience explore as the show progressed.

There were five sections to the show, each with its own unique type of interaction between dancers and viewers. As the dancers made their entrance, the first mode, “Adjectives,” was activated. Every few seconds, the spotlight would shine on one of the audience members, and the tablet in that person’s hands would show a list of words from which to choose. The word that was chosen, which was anything from “hero” to “quicksand” to “anger” to many others, would be announced on stage by a computer. The actors would then immediately switch to portraying those emotions, suddenly going from enacting a scenario where they are drowning in quicksand to being furious with each other, shoving things and stomping around.

After a few minutes, the lights dimmed and the second section, “Call & Response,” began. The spotlight would shine on five audience members at a time, one for each dancer. These five people now had control over the dancers by moving their tablets. Either tilting left to right or shaking or turning, they could alter the dancer’s movements. The motion of the tablet would signal auditory cues to the dancers that they could interpret in various ways. Audience members were able to make the dancers do anything from a slow relaxed dance to an erratic motion. One member even got his dancer to jump up and down gracefully.

The third section, “Drum Circle,” was an attempt at getting all audience members interacting, with or without a tablet. The dancers prompted everyone to start drumming on their chairs and thighs. Some of the chairs were set up so that drumming on them would amplify the sound and signal cues to the dancers, effectively getting the audience to control the rhythm of the dance with their drumming.

“Light Switch” was perhaps the most interesting section. The lights all dimmed, and virtual light switches appeared on the tablets. Flipping them would toggle spotlights on dancers. The catch was that the dancers were only allowed to move when their lights were off, becoming frozen as soon as the light was activated. The concluding section, “Poses,” invited all of the audience members with tablets onto the floor. Directions would appear on the screens, such as “mirror your partner,” “get groovy” or “cha-cha.” The result was more than 30 people dancing, suddenly and collectively switching styles every few seconds.

“Theatre Engine” is definitely a unique experience, and what excites Anthony Roberts, the Artist-in-Residence in Dance who was tasked with preparing the students to perform, is the idea that the performance itself evolves over time. The fact that it’s all very experimental means the performers get to tweak and improve it based on feedback. On a more subtle level, the performance itself will always be slightly different because new audiences will interact in varying ways.

Roberts sees a lot a potential for this idea. He is very excited about the notion of taking something that usually absorbs so much of our attention and isolates us, and enabling it to open up new forms of communication and interaction. In many ways, the “Theatre Engine” project gives us insight into the novel ways in which technology can nurture, rather than hinder, social connection.

Photo Courtesy of Dean Neuburger

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Ole programmer wins prize at tech competition

The Midwest Women in Computing MinneWIC conference was held over the weekend of Feb. 20 through Feb. 22 at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The conference called for young women across Minnesota and neighboring states to discuss the role of women in computing.

MinneWic an initiative to help women network with other women with experience in the industry who share the same passions. Alexandra Best ’15, a computer science major, was St. Olaf’s representative for the undergraduate division and ultimately won first prize.

Her project was a program she developed over her Interim course, Parallel and Distributed Computing. She combined her love of programming with her passion for music. Best loves to sing and regularly takes lessons at a voice studio. It is one of the biggest music studios, giving one-on-one lessons to up to 30 students. Best’s voice instructor, Karen Wilkerson, is tasked with figuring out a schedule that fits everyone into the available time slots, without conflicting with anyone’s obligations. It’s a process that takes all night, and has to be done all over again if anything changes. Best saw this as a problem, and like any programming enthusiast, set out to create change with computer code.

Her idea was simply to create a program that would run through all the different ways one could put the students into a schedule in order to find the best fit. She figured that even if there were many possibilities to check, her program would be able to handle it, because computers are very good at crunching enormous amounts of data an iPhone 5 can execute 5,000 million instructions per second, and desktop computers and laptops can do much more. The problem was that the numbers grew exponentially. For just 3 students and 5 time slots, there are about 24 possible schedules that can be made. For the full 30 students and 43 time slots, however, the number of possibilities has 42 digits.

Obviously, straightforward checking of all combinations wasn’t going to work. Best first tried implementing the techniques she was learning in her Interim course to spread the workload over multiple CPU cores or multiple computers. Even with that, it was still not feasible to check all combinations, so she had to get a little more creative and come up with algorithms to deduce which schedules were more likely and quickly discard those that failed her tests. The final program allowed students not only to fill in their times of availability, but also to rate their preferences, and it was able to consistently find a schedule that gave students their favored spots in under a minute.

Needless to say, many were impressed by her work at MinneWIC. Her plans are to streamline and turn her scheduling program into a web application using HiperCiC an initiative led by Professor of Computer Science Richard Brown to create apps to solve faculty or research problems. This way, the same scheduling logic, speed and efficiency can be used for any context, not just for the voice studio.

Best’s prize was a trip to the Grace Hopper conference, which is the world’s largest celebration of women in computing, held later this year in Houston, Texas. There is a long and storied history of women in computer science. The first programmer in history was a woman named Ada Lovelace. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in shaping the way modern computers are programmed. The technology behind Wi-Fi was invented by a woman named Hedy Lamarr.

In the 1980s, women composed nearly 40 percent of the computing workforce. Unfortunately, this number has fallen drastically in recent years, as the industry has been unable to successfully attract young female students.

Best said that it was inspiring to be around women who not only understand this disparity, but have succeeded in a field notorious for its male dominance.

“It’s exciting that there are so many conferences modeling the Grace Hopper celebration and encouraging women in computing,” she said.

Best could be evidence that things are changing in the computing industry. St. Olaf is certainly doing its best to foster a community for women in computing and launch them into exciting careers.

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Oleville updates include online pizza orders is the official website for the Student Government Association SGA. SGA has recently launched a Web application that allows students to order pizzas, complete with customizable toppings, all in a very easy and intuitive way. The impressive app even allows students to track their orders by giving an estimated time of delivery. The application seems rather straightforward, but development on it started almost a year ago.

“If the whole process feels simple, that means we’ve done our job right,” said Drew Volz ’16, the main Web developer on this project.

The complexity of most computer software is hidden from the user. Programming is a very iterative process; the very first incarnation of the online Pause order app probably looked nothing like what the St. Olaf community sees now. The Pause has been wanting to create an online ordering system for a long time. It’s far more efficient for both the customer and the Pause staff.

The way the system works is that the Pause Kitchen has a screen where new orders are posted immediately, as soon as they are placed.

“They get a big sound every time a new order arrives, like a beep, so that it can be heard over the loud music,” said Volz.

Whoever starts working on the order then clicks a button to let the system know that the order is being processed. This is done several times during the pizza making process

“We basically have all the same tracking features that the Domino’s tracker has, except for the delivery part,” said Volz.

The system also knows how many orders are in queue and can tell the orderer if the pizza will take a little bit longer to get ready. All the hard work seems to have paid off. The app is quickly gaining popularity, having accrued a total of $500 worth of online orders since its launch over Interim. It was not developed just for the sake of providing students with the gift of pizza, however, but as part of a larger vision for Oleville.

“We want Oleville to act as the hub of information for students,” said John Bruer ’16, the Webmaster. “We want it to answer questions ranging from ‘What sort of activities can I get involved in?’ to ‘What can I do on a weekend?’ or even, now, ‘How do I order a Pause pizza?'”

The core development team consists of four students who continually manage the technical aspects of the Web site and write code that updates it with new features. They have recently revamped the Web site. While the new design looks very slick and makes the Web site easier to navigate, the changes happening behind the scenes are much more impressive. The development team has been working hard to internally restructure the Web site and build the tools that will help SGA reach and connect more efficiently with the student body.

For example, there used to be a weekly newsletter that went out to the student body with updates from SGA meetings. This was useful, but quite painful to manage, since there was no interface system. Every newsletter required changes in the code, and if another branch of SGA wanted to send a newsletter, or wanted to change how it looked, it would require the technical knowledge to dig into the code and change it.

The new tools will allow any branch of SGA to easily customize a newsletter in terms of style and content and send it out without needing any technical background.

“Transparency is one of the issues we want to address,” said Bruer. “Our goal is to be able to broadcast as much information to the student body as possible.”

Doing that without inundating everyone can be a challenge, but these tools can set the foundations for that. The plan is to expand so that student organizations can also use the same tools to easily broadcast information and connect the interested students to the right organizations.

A tremendous amount of work has gone into updating Oleville, and more exciting changes are on the way. Students should watch for these upcoming changes, and in the meantime, enjoy a Pause pizza that was ordered online.


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