This morning a reader sent me this link about what happens when you tell search engine Wolfram Alpha about Shakespeare’s plays:
Entering a play into Wolfram|Alpha, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brings up basic information, such as number of acts, scenes, and characters. It also provides more in-depth info like longest word, most frequent words, number of words and sentences, and more. It’s also easy to find more specific information about a particular act or scene with queries like “What is the longest word in King Lear?”, “What is the average sentence length of Macbeth?”, and “How many unique words are there in Twelfth Night?”.
I suppose this has value at some level. But if anything it goes to show how limited a pure textual analysis is, don’t you think? Great, it can determine the longest word in a play. But who gets to decide what that means, and why it is (or is not) important?
Reminds me of an age-old quote, attributed to Picasso: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
I’ve always been far more intrigued with stories of AI in computer science where they attempt to make sure leaps about things that are important, and why they are important. Pioneers Doug Lenat and Roger Schank did a great deal of work in this area — Lenat’s “Cyc” project can easily be seen as a precursor to what Wolfram Alpha has become.
Something that I’ve always dreamed about, and who knows maybe one day I’ll build it, is a sort of search engine where you ask questions of the characters from within the context of the play, like one of those murder mystery tv shows where you’re the detective coming in to question the suspects. “Hamlet, why did you kill Polonius?” “I thought he was my uncle.” “When did you do it?” “When I went to see my mother in her bedchamber, after we saw the play.” That sort of thing. And you could switch around your context to ask different characters their take on the same situation.
That wouldn’t have any academic value per se, as the programmer would have to pick a specific interpretation of events and then state it as if it were fact. But as far as entertaining the user while also teaching her something? I think it could be a big hit. “Chat bots” have always been amusing, to a degree. This would just take it to the next level.