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Lisa Smedman Posthuman Romantics Projects

Sutra Sonnets

Twitch Game by Lisa Smedman, Post-Human Romantics, February 2021

Creator: Lisa Smedman
Exhibition: Posthuman Romantics
Published: Feb 2021
Format: Game (Twine)
Content Warning: None


Overview Synopsis

Mindar is a robot, created in 2019, that resides in Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. It speaks Zen Buddhist teachings – the Heart Sutras. Its creators made it in response to low birth rates in Japan and a resulting decline in the number of Buddhist monks. The intention is that Mindar will continue to teach long after the last monk has died.
Sutra Sonnets imagines a Mindar equipped with an artificial intelligence learning program (something the real Mindar does not have). It futher imagines that the robot has developed an interest in the Romantic Era poetry of Woodsworth, Keats and Shelley, and that it is substituting words from Buddhist sutras into their poems to create its own unique poetry.

Artist’s Statement

Although I refer to it as a “game,” Sutra Sonnets is really more of an “experience.” It can be used to create a single poem, or many poems. Each will be completely different. Many will be nonsensical, but occasionally a line – sometimes even an entire poem – will sound quite profound.
I’d love to see some of the poems Sutra Sonnets creates for you, and to hear your interpretation and experience of them. I’d love it if you would send a screenshot of your favorite poem(s) to me at smedwoman@shaw.ca, together with your thoughts.

How the Game was Created:

Sutra Sonnets was built using Twine (www.twinery.org), software designed for those who like to create Choose Your Own Adventure style video games. I started by selecting one poem each from the great Romantic poets: Woodsworth, Keats, and Shelley, which I used as the structure for the poems. I then selected nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs from Zen Buddhist sutras, choosing 100 words for each
category. Each poem generated by Sutra Sonnets is created by the engine randomly selects a word, then replaces the poem’s original noun, verb, adjective or adverb with that word.
The video that plays on screen is of the Mindar robot, filmed while it was giving one of its teachings. I edited the video so it would play in a loop, with Mindar turning first right, then left, hand raised.
The music is from www.purple-planet.com, a source of copyright-free music. I chose the piece for its title:
“Music: A Touch of Zen.” I wanted something calming, something that sounded like it fit in a Japanese Buddhist temple.
I wanted to add a robotic voiceover to Sutra Sonnets – it was my original intent that the robot also “speak” aloud the poetry it was creating. This would have proved an easy task, had the poetry not been procedurally generated, but after dozens of hours of failed attempts, I gave up on this aspect.
I did at last find a workaround, however. If you play Sutra Sonnets on Google Chrome, and first add to Chrome the free extension “Read Aloud.” When the text has finished appearing on screen, click the Read Aloud icon at the top right of your screen, to the right of the URL, and a robotic voice will read the words on screen aloud.

Link:

https://lisasmedman.itch.io/sutra-sonnets

Spoken English with English Subtitles, Transcript below.

[Text is read using a Text to Speech generator]

Lisa Smedman is an accomplished writer and game designer, with 23 science fiction and fantasy books published to date. She has designed numerous adventures for the Dungeons & Dragons game, and written novels set in the Forgotten Realms. A journalist for more than 20 years, she currently teaches game design at LaSalle College Vancouver. Her real-time bidding card game, “Merchants of the Sands,” is due for publication soon by Rather Dashing Games. She is one of the founding members of The Papercut Arcade.

[Lisa/Read via Text to Speech:] Mindar is a robot, created in 2019, that resides in Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. It speaks Zen Buddhist teachings – the Heart Sutras. Its creators made it in response to low birth rates in Japan and a resulting decline in the number of Buddhist monks. The intention is that Mindar will continue to teach long after the last monk has died.

Sutra Sonnets imagines a Mindar equipped with an artificial intelligence learning program (something the real Mindar does not have). It further imagines that the robot has developed an interest in the Romantic Era poetry of Woodsworth, Keats and Shelley, and that it is substituting words from Buddhist sutras into their poems to create its own unique poetry.

[Jon] Your artist is an artificial intelligence made to replace human beings in service to them. Does the artist feel that the sutras have spiritual benefit only for human beings or do they receive or expect to receive their own spiritual benefit in turn?

[Lisa/Read by Text to Speech] Interesting question. I had envisioned that Mindar was creating the poems for its own amusement, and/or to benefit humans. But I suppose yes, the AI would see this as a learning experience for itself, as well. I suppose it might go further and examine the poems or meaning or insight, and evolve (spiritually) from what it discovers.

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