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The Dawn Chorus

2010 April 6

In the 5th grade, I devised my own language; for I could think of no better or more fascinating challenge. For my Master’s thesis at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, I could think of no better or more fascinating challenge than to invent language-inventing machines. What resulted was The Dawn Chorus, a group of electronic sculptures that do just this—emergently, and autonomously. Using a suite of custom hardware and a simple neural network for each device, the individuals learn from each other and are thus able to converge on common, conventional “words” for their experiences, such as a flash of light or sudden noise.

Seem them in action:

My final thesis presentation:

All the technical details are in the thesis paper!

This Dawn Chorus has gradually and emergently developed its own song-language, a metastructure that was never designed into any of the Chorus’s individual members.  Each member of the Chorus has the ability to sense the light and sound of its environment and the ability to vocalize—as well as the ability to learn from the actions of its neighbors.  In this way, the Chorus is able to naturally develop its own set of linguistic, musical conventions, entirely independently.

These sculptures contain a compact set of electronics comprising a microcontroller, sound and light sensors, a hybrid digital-analog synthesizer of my own design, a radio module and a speaker.  Each unit uses a simple neural network learning algorithm to associate environmental events and the actions of its milieu with generative sound patterns.  In short, the entities that make up the Dawn Chorus learn to talk to each other.

But what about?  The Dawn Chorus is not meant as an attempt to mimic animal behavior, but rather as an experiment in emergent poetics.  I see the songs of the Chorus as more musical than communicative, as more of a series of conversational poems than a survival strategy.  In time, we humans may even learn their language—but they will continue to enjoy it on their own.

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