All posts by Marcus Hughes

How to Teach a Computer to Write Stories

This is part of a three part series detailing the computer science senior thesis projects. 

While computers writing stories from scratch may sound like something from science fiction, Melanie Subbiah disagrees. For her senior thesis in computer science, Melanie is teaching computers to write new stories on their own, a cutting edge field called open narrative generation. She’s always loved creative writing and has taken many Williams College literature and writing courses.  While struggling to decide on a thesis topic she says,  “it suddenly occurred to me, why not study creative writing from a computer science standpoint?”
Working with Williams Professor Andrea Danyluk, an expert on machine learning, she has developed a process to guide computers through the creative steps. First, she gives the computer a collection of stories written by regular authors to analyze. Computers require inspiration in the same way humans do! She has the computer identify the paragraphs, sentences, words, and parts of speech. With all these notes the existing stories can be broken down into patterns, something computers are adept at handling. 
In the rectangles are two short and unique stories. While they may seem very different, they can be broken down into the same pattern below. Melanie uses a large collection of human stories to identify these kinds of patterns and then automatically generate a new story by using portions of the pattern of different stories.
Good stories have a moving plot filled with impactful events. So, Melanie has designed algorithms the computer can use to identify the events of the stories. Then, it’s time to generate a new plot. She uses an increasingly popular machine learning tool called a neural network. A neural network mimics the human brain by using many neurons. Each neuron might be responsible for a very specific pattern, or in the case of our brains a memory or function. When they receive the right stimulus, e.g. a phrase or event, they fire and produce a new result. Her neural network uses the collection of events it learned from other stories to create a new plot. 
As any writer can attest, storywriting does not stop when you come up with a plot. What parts of the plot do you tell the reader? From what perspective? With what details and emotion? Melanie builds on existing work to transform the computer’s plot into sentences that we can then enjoy. 
By the end of the year, she will have several stories authored by computers as well as evaluations on how logical  and original they are. She’s very excited to continue this work, and it’s helping her decide if and where she wants to attend graduate school.
Melanie’s process, her pipeline, starts with human written stories and breaks them down into patterns. Then, she builds up a new story by taking bits and pieces from all the patterns the computer has learned.


Melanie Subbiah, Class of 2017












The splash image for this post is from this site and is not owned or originally produced by The ScientEphic. 

Prof Frank Morgan: A Mathematical Legacy

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16 and Avital Lipkin ’19
Frank Morgan has become one of the most beloved professors at Williams College.  His enthusiasm for math, eagerness to work with others, and quirky sense of fun make him a campus favorite.  In honor of his retirement, the ScientEphic is celebrating his career and time at Williams with our latest podcast episode, featuring Morgan and a number of students and faculty members who have worked with him over the years.  After you listen, be sure to check out this video from his blog.

Turner Whitted and Virtual Reality: From Promise to Practical

Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA.
Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA.

The text you are currently reading is crisp and clear thanks to Turner Whitted, a computer scientist at NVIDIA. While working at Microsoft in 2000, he invented the ClearType algorithm that uses shades of grey to smooth text pixels and make letter boundaries clearer. Modified versions of this algorithm are used practically everywhere from mobile phones and smartwatches to laptops.

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Williams Hosts Astronomy Symposium

Image: Williams College students who attended the 2015 KNAC symposium. L to R: Allison Carter ’16, Michael May ’17, Sarah Stevenson ’17, Emily Stump ’18, Anneliese Rilinger ’17, Ross Yu ’19, Becky Durst ’16. Gillian, and Prof. Karen Kwitter. Not Pictured: Tina Seeger ’16, MeiLu McDermott ’16, Hallee Wong ’18, Marcus Hughes ’18, Tim Nagle-McNaughton ’18

Why didn’t the Dog Star laugh at the joke? If you were in science quad last weekend (October 17th) and asked one of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) presenters, you would likely have gotten a chuckle and a response that “it was too Sirius.” KNAC, a collaboration of eight liberal arts colleges in New England (Colgate University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, Wesleyan University, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, and Williams College) funds summer research opportunities for astronomy students. The annual symposium, which rotates between the eight institutions, was hosted at Williams this year with 32 student speakers and 9 poster presentations.

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Science Faculty Weigh in on “Why Liberal Arts?”

By Marcus Hughes ’18 

When I told my friends at home that I was going to Williams College to study science, some of them asked me why I was choosing not to go to a STEM-oriented college. Their curiosity got me thinking.

Why study science at a liberal arts institution? Why teach science at a liberal arts institution?  What are the benefits of a liberal arts education for science students?

To explore these questions, we decided to survey the Williams science faculty to find out why they teach at Williams and what they think about liberal arts.  Many of the responses confirmed what we already know, while others highlighted the pros and cons of a Williams education specifically for science students.

Click on the word clouds below to find out more!