Sandwich is an independent research project that I worked on during the summer of 2020. For this project, I explored the idea of language variation over space, time, and between individuals. My objective was to design an experience that immerses viewers in this process of language change by observing a group of machines endlessly talk about sandwiches. Over time, these machines come up against different obstacles that they must adapt their language to solve. In developing this experience, I studied how to computationally model an adaptive language system that is not tied to a particular human language.
Work in natural language processing is often built on language-specific constraints, making it difficult to generalize cross-linguistically. This is particularly important to consider with low-resource languages, where data is not abundant and cannot be fully representative. Linguistic typology, the systematic categorization of language features, can be used to extrapolate information about a language’s structure from relatively little data (Ponti et al., 2019), facilitating adaptation to this kind of bias. I used this insight while crafting a small language and encouraging it to change out of my control.
We can frame the change of grammatical features over time as an evolutionary process, where clarity is maximized and effort is minimized (Jager, 2007). This framework drove my presentation of the machines with obstacles and the development of language features that maximize effectiveness of overcoming said obstacles. So they start with a minimal language that they choose features for, depending on what is best suited to solve the problem at hand.
Machines can also be a good proxy for one specific feature of humanity and highlight the ways that we constrain ourselves. One example of this is in “Cello” (da Costa, 2000), where a cello-playing machine exhibited performance anxiety and frustration with visitors present. I hope the focus of my project makes it a conduit for understanding the universality of language, through the universal food of sandwiches.