Blog: Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino — New City Oracle

An artificial intelligence fortune teller: emerging technologies transforming the mundane.

Most visions of the future are polarised between the dystopia of film and books and the Pollyanna worlds of big tech companies commercials.

But beyond those neat narratives, there are endless small aspects of everyday life that are transformed by technological developments. And are those small technological tweaks, numerous and marginal changes, that cumulatively affect our lives the most.

The Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino is an example of how emerging technologies can transform the mundane: an artificial intelligence fortune teller.

From street cartomancy, fortune-telling always went through a technological upgrade. Television brought nigh-time dedicated shows on tarot reading and internet platforms lead to online consultation services. And with some bigger sites already using outsourced call-centres for offering consultations, with machine learning technologies becoming as accessible as creating a Wix or WordPress site, AI fortune telling is just around the corner.

In the shape of a small shrine and decorated with hand-blown Murano glasses, the Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino invites passersby to ask for advice about the future. Trained on data from online horoscope archives, the oracle’s neural network displays on its screen original predictions based on a single starting word that people send through SMS or a dedicated webpage.

The Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino shows how emerging technologies can play a part in all aspect of our lives, especially the overlooked, marginal ones. Besides, what better than the tropes of superstition to fit the blind beliefs that surround the technologies of AI and machine learning?

Somebody asking about amore (love) to the oracle on the first day of the installation

The Technology

The oracle AI software is based on Char-RNN, a class of neural network especially effective in generating original text matching a particular style, from a corpus of text that the network was trained with. In our case, the training data came from an Italian horoscope site, whose 15 years archive of weekly predictions are available online (and structured enough to be downloaded with the Web Scraper Chrome app).

The Char-RNN algorithm can be configured to start from a specific seed word, and this was how the oracle could give prediction based on the user-specified subject. The AI software with the text generation AI was then placed in a web server, listening for users to send the oracle the initial word for the prediction via SMS (via Nexmo) or through a form in a web-page (as during testing we realised that not everybody has SMS plans in Italy anymore…).

An important parameter in configuring the Neural Network software was the temperature. This controls how “creative” the generated text is going to be. At high temperature, the network creates mumbling, unintelligible texts that are no longer even grammatically correct, while with low temperatures it keeps repeating similar sentences each time when initiated with the same prefix word. As shown later, the temperature value we opted for generates text that is often weird and sometimes even plain non-sensical. But this was deliberate. What class of fortune-teller would it be if its prediction didn’t require some human interpretation?

The oracle and the people

The New Oracolo Cittadino has been active for a whole month, day and night, in the busy and nightlife area of Navigli, in Milano. During this period, the oracle received 104 requests either via SMS or via the webpage.

Of these, most requests were about Amore (Love) or Work (Lavoro) — standard categories for the Horoscope in Italy and also the keywords suggested in the explanation poster.

Here are some of the actual predictions that the oracle give to people who asked about love or work.

Amore potrebbe essere la risposta alle persone che vi sono intorno e che vorrebbero subire un po’ di strada per il futuro. 
(Love could be the answer to people around you that would like to endure some way for the future)

Amore o per la vostra famiglia.
(Love or for your family)

Lavoro in questa giornata potrebbe essere molto più divertente da voi. 
(Work in this day it could be much more fun at your’s)

Lavoro in questa giornata vi sentirete molto entusiasti di quello che vorreste fare.
(Work in this day you will be very excited of what you would like to do)

Obviously, the Milanese night crawlers had also some pressing questions to ask the oracle on a Saturday night. This is the oracle prediction when sent the world Scopiamo (Let’s Fuck).

Scopiamo le persone in questa giornata.
(Let’s fuck people today)

And here’s a particularly obscure prediction the oracle gave when the asked world was Droga (drug).

Drogate il vostro umore in questa giornata, potrebbe non essere troppo presuntuosi e non sarete al centro dell’attenzione di parecchie opportunità in questa giornata. 
(Drug your mood today, it could be not so arrogant and you won’t be in the centre of attention of many opportunities today)

The Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino is a collaboration between Leonardo Amico (interaction designer, technologist) and Federico Floriani (product designer, photographer).

The glass pieces were produced by AAMURANO (Angeli Antichi Glass Factory). Thanks also to Francesca Biagiotti for the graphics and to General Life for the stickers on the object.

All Photos by Federico Floriani.

The Nuovo Oracolo Cittadino was on display at Edicola Radetzki, via Gorizia, Milano — from 1/3/2019 to 31/3/2019. Soon enough, in this shape or another, will also come to a city near you.

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium