The Talking Heads experiment: Origins of words and meanings PDF



I set up the Talking Heads experiment with a group of brilliant students and collaborators at the end of the nineteen nineties. It was intended to be the first large-scale, open-ended experiment in the emergence of a shared set of grounded concepts and a vocabulary for expressing these concepts by a population of autonomous agents. Inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the experiment took the form of a series of language games, more concretely games of reference about a “world” made up of geometric figures pasted on a white board and observable by the agents through pan-tilt cameras. I wanted to demonstrate with this experiment earlier breakthroughs in the study of language origins and test whether they would hold for large-scale populations and open-ended environments.

I also wanted to find out how humans would interact with these agents. So we made it such that human users, after logging in through the Internet, could teach new words to agents or use the words they learned from the agents to play their own language games.

In 1999, the experiment went live in the context of an exhibition called Laboratorium organised in Antwerp (Belgium) by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Vanderlinden. After a first experimental run from 27 June 1999 to 3 October 1999, the experiment was repeated as part of a new exhibition called N01SE organised in Cambridge and London (UK) by Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer from 22 January to 26 March 2000, with additional installations at the Palais de la Découverte in Paris and several other places.

At the occasion of the 1999 Laboratorium exhibition, the draft of a book was published that described the experiment and the underlying theoretical assumptions in considerable detail. For many reasons, not at least that work continued at great speed on other exciting experiments, the original “pre-edition” of the book never made it to a fully finished officially published work, and circulated only as an “underground” edition. This was disappointing because the Talking Heads experiment was an important breakthrough. Moreover the experiment contained the first inklings of mechanisms that since then have been worked out, enhanced and tested in many experiments which replicated the original results and further enhanced them. The present volume is intended to fill this gap.


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