My name is Mohan Embar and I love to code. I also love natural languages, creative writing and music. I’ve been interested in the intersection of computers and natural languages for a long, long time now.
This website and project are the start of keeping a promise that I made to myself a long time ago. I want to make an impact, however small, on the state of the art of using computers to help and comfort people via natural language. I have some already-existing work in this area, like Chip Vivant and Empathy Now!. I won the 2012 Loebner Prize Competition (see here, here and here).
I can speak a number of foreign languages with varying degrees of fluency. One of the methods I used to use was reading cheap romance novels in the target language because the concepts and language used weren’t difficult, but weren’t at a child level either. These novels would elicit different reactions in me, none of which the author probably intended. At one point in time, I muttered to myself “I could generate this.” (Eventually, I decided that the payoff wasn’t worth the torture I was putting myself through in reading these.)
I imagined a computer program called Harible which would churn out romance novels by the thousands. The “Har” in Harible is intended to be pronounced like the “Har” in Harlequin. I put this high up on my bucket list.
One reason this problem resonates with me is that I can sidestep a thorny AI problem that creators of intelligent machines face: that of understanding human input. This is purely a problem of generation, not understanding. (Of course, there will be an “understanding” piece when trying to figure out how human motivation and intent can influence a storyline, but this isn’t the kind of understanding I’m talking about.)
This bucket list entry was made decades ago; as of today, January 23, 2015, I still haven’t attended to it. I’ve worked on the other projects I’ve mentioned, but not this one.
Two days ago marked the ninth anniversary of my father’s untimely passing. (His demise was alcohol-related: If you know you have a problem, please get help and think of the impact you’re having on others, especially those close to you.) Two days ago, I reflected to myself that these nine years have gone by in a flash and I remember a conversation I had with Janavi, a Hare Krishna devotee who used to feed me in front of the UNC campus on Wednesdays in Chapel Hill, NC. (I am not a Hare Krishna.) She was in her 20s and I had a slight crush on her. One day, I asked her how long she was planning on doing this Hare Krishna thing, living at the temple, etc. She said “The rest of my life.” I said: “You maybe have 60-70 years left. How can you be so sure at your age that you will do a given thing for the rest of your life?”
She then looked at me as if channeling some higher wisdom and said:
“Mohan, 60 years will go by in a flash.”
That was almost 27 years ago.
So while I still feel young and spry, I know from firsthand experience that time does go by in a flash and with my father’s passing, I feel a renewed sense of urgency with this bucket list.
Here are my goals with robotfiction.com and this website:
- Have an outlet for my work and results.
- Have a gathering place where people who are interested in this project and field can commune and share ideas.
- Generate works of various styles of fiction (not limited to romance novels) which, while not human-created, are engaging and fascinating in their own right.
- Avoid pontification at the expense of concrete results.
- Use this as an experiment to see whether one’s passion can be monetized even though it doesn’t fit the classic pattern of being cool and hip or else solving an acute pain point. (Maybe this vision really does fit one of these categories, but I’m not seeing it quite yet, especially on a mass scale.)
The monetization part will definitely take a backseat to providing cool, engaging and free content as well as a gathering-place for like-minded people.
One of my goals isn’t really collaboration (other than idea sharing). I consider this an offshoot of writing and am not interested in co-authoring so much as giving my ideas free reign and enjoying how this unfolds organically.
Thank you for reading this far and sharing this time with me.