Putting literary analysis to work in the software startup world

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Credited with an important Shakespeare discovery, UoN alumni and conjoint member of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Dr Jack Elliott is now putting his computational stylistics skills to use for a software startup.

Photo credit: Janie Barrett, Fairfax Syndication
Photo credit: Janie Barrett, Fairfax Syndication

Describing himself as a working literary critic, Dr Jack Elliott is the Senior Data Scientist for Flamingo, a startup that creates artificial intelligence software. Known as Rosie the robot, the software has the ability to sell insurance online and converse with customers through chat sessions using computational analysis of text.

It might seem to be a completely different trajectory for someone who studied the literary features of popular fiction novels as well as discovering the true authorship of one of Shakespeare’s plays. However Dr Elliott says his work with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing is very complementary to his current role with Flamingo.

“Originally for my PhD I programmed machines to be able to detect various literary features in novels, plays or poetry. The difference with this new software is that these fragments of text are chat messages and the software learns to respond,” Dr Elliott said.

One of the focuses of Dr Elliott’s PhD was the hundreds of years old question as to who was the true author of the Arden of Faversham, a previously unattributed play from the late 1500’s. With his colleague Dr Brett Greatley-Hirsch, Dr Elliott showed through the use of computational stylistics that Shakespeare was likely a co-author of the play.

“It had long been regarded a possibility that Shakespeare had written at least some of the play. Through our exploratory analysis we realised this thesis was becoming more likely. We subjected the thesis to a battery of tests, deploying not only the latest methods but also time-tested methods to determine whether this was a reasonable result.”

The two literary scholars analysed text from the play using computers to measure the frequency and pattern of words. They then compared these patterns with patterns from Shakespeare’s other works as well as those of other authors of the time.

The digital evidence they found convinced the New Oxford Shakespeare editors to include the Arden of Faversham in the latest edition of Shakespeare’s works.

Director of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Professor Hugh Craig was Dr Elliot’s PhD supervisor and helped to develop many of the stylometry methods used to analyse literary works. He says this discovery gives us further insight into how plays of the 16th Century were written.

“We often think that Shakespeare was a solo writer, however what we now see is that he actually worked in conjunction with other writers,” Professor Craig said.

Dr Elliott also subjected thousands of novels from the popular romance publisher Harlequin to literary analysis as part of his doctorate on the numerical modeling of text. With eight Harlequin novels published every month, Dr Elliott decided to put their novels through his algorithms and discovered some particularly interesting findings.

“With so many Harlequin novels published every week, it’s almost beyond the limits of human ability to read them all. So we used computers to strip mine these novels to study them on a massive scale,” Dr Elliott said. “What we found was that authorship is the dominant grouping feature of these novels.  I asked the computer to tell me about the important feature of these novels and by simply analysing the textual patterns it would group them into authors.”

“The computer was also able to identify a huge shift in the way the novels were written which coincided with a bad year for the publisher. The publisher asked their authors to write in a different way and the computer identified those changes in the text.”

With his wealth of experience in the world of startups, Dr Elliott has been sharing his knowledge with potential entrepreneurs at the Humanities Startup Workshops held by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities.

Held in late 2016 and July 2017, the workshops invite humanities scholars and students with business ideas to spend two days developing their pitches that are then delivered to a panel of judges. Dr Elliott was one of those judges and was impressed with the range of ideas, all of which had a focus on reinvention.

“I found being judge for the workshops to be enormously interesting and gratifying. I’m heavily involved in the startup community in Sydney, so am familiar with the pitching process. However what stood out for me about these workshops is that most of the startups pitched were all about giving back to the community and not necessarily about making money, but more about serving a purpose,” Dr Elliott observed.

“So many of the ideas were socially aware and focused on reinvigorating local communities and empowering them, which was really refreshing to see.”

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