Computer Writes Message on Toilet Wall
A group of computer scientists and artists have built a robot that writes graffiti on toilet walls. The research team spent three years taking photographs of text written on the inside of toilet cubicles in bars, restaurants, park toilets, sports stadiums and universities. They then transcribed the text and fed it to an algorithm programmed with machine learning capabilities that could determine tropes and phrases commonly used in toilet scribble. The algorithm was then installed into a small robot that can crawl undetected through public spaces towards the toilets. Once inside the toilet cubicle, the algorithm generates a new message (based on all the graffiti in its memory) in a unique hand-written font. The robot, installed with a mini printer, prints the graffiti as a sticker and sticks it to the wall, and makes its escape.
The head of the research team, Dr Hannah Brown, says that the project was inspired because of the intimate and highly personalised nature of the language people use when writing toilet graffiti. Trained as both a computer scientist and poet, Brown explains she feels compelled to explore what it is that makes human language distinctively human, and that toilets were a good place to start.
"I started taking pictures of toilet graffiti around 5 years ago for a poetry project," Brown recounts. "I wanted to make a collage poem out of the text, but in the process I discovered that each piece of graffiti on its own was unique and sincere, and illuminated the life of the person who wrote it, their entire personality, their hopes for the future, their insecurities, everything. I thought they were, on their own, the most perfect poems I’d ever seen, destined to be removed and disappear under turpentine and an old rag. I wondered: if toilet graffiti is such a personal and sincere act, could a computer write toilet graffiti?”
Despite a few technical mishaps, Brown feels that the experiment has so far been a great success. “Our algorithm is generating graffiti that is sometimes heartbreakingly sincere. The other day it wrote: “I am in love with red head with freckles!” I’ve started to feel this strange tenderness for our little robot. I often have to remind myself that it’s just a mashup of the confessions and fantasies of thousands of real human toilet writers.”
The project has been criticised on social media for being a waste of time and money. “Why would we want to teach a computer how to vandalise,” one tweeter asked? Brown defends the project on its artistic merit. “This project isn’t only about the algorithm and the robot. It aims to bring up a more foundational questions about our humanity. I’ve always wondered: why do people write things on toilets? It is completely anonymous, an art form that is practiced for no specific audience, but for an imagined audience. It is the individual communicating to the collective. In a way it is like a prototype Internet.”
By studying the messages that the algorithm is generating, Brown hopes to learn more about the nature of sincerity. “We’re often told that in the digital realm privacy is the greatest commodity. I disagree: I think sincerity is much more valuable.”
pub toilet graffiti as pre-digital, anonymized social media is a great call, autonomous robots operating as secret algorithmic sigil-makers in public space is just… I just… I… I’m gonna have to lie down for a bit and think about that.
I think, in times of feeling misunderstood or misrecognized, we cathect to the strangest objects, and mine these days is Tom Cruise, who I feel so much strange fascination and empathy toward, partly because he seems so blocked—libidinally, personally—in his public life, but also because he still manages to communicate something pretty brilliant and often affecting in his performances. Also, maybe, because no one really seems to like him all that much, everyone seems convinced that my affection for him can only be read as camp. Which, ok? A friend called me “Tom Cruise’s Last Fan.” But he’s an outsider dork who seems still relentless in his attempt to be the best mediated self he can be. His devotion to authentic performances is admirable.
Beware. Tangle – the crunching intersection of different heavy-duty infrastructures – might not be pretty, but it serves an important, if unintended, civic role. It is our daily reminder that living in the city means occupying part of a hugely complicated machine comprising dozens of competing systems. The technical compromises and trade-offs that make up the modern city are made visible – no one wanted them to be visible, but that’s just another compromise. We are shown the sheer difficulty that underpins the human hive.
By contrast, the rhetoric around smart cities, like network-evangelist rhetoric in general, is all invisibility, intangibility, seamlessness and ease. The whole thing depends on massive physical infrastructure, of course – ever-growing server farms and fibre-optic grids – but this material truth has proven itself easier to hide than earlier systems. In place is talk of wirelessness and clouds, which might sound unblinkingly modern but are in fact a kind of genteel evasion. The invisible air gap between our smart phone and the nearest router or transceiver resembles … a thin layer of decoration to hide the actual machinery of the world around us.
Turn on the app If you feel unsafe hold your finger on the screen. Once arrived to a safe location, enter your code. If your finger leaves the screen without entering the code law enforcement is notified and your location is tracked through your phone.
There is also Kitestring. Also, here’s to hoping that subway/underground systems get mobile signals sometime soon.