This installation makes poetry using MIT’s ConceptNet


Definitions is a meditation on digital ontologies and commodification.


The brainchild of Parsons School of Design student Bryan Ma, Definitions is a poetic computational installation comprised of 15 small, networked LCDs that serves as a metaphor for the use of neuro-linguistic programming (NLB) in commoditizing human activity on the web.

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One at a time, the LCDs individually display seemingly random English words or phrases in order from the left to the right. After all of the screens have shown a word, the system restarts and reveals a new sequence. As Ma explains, the project utilizes the ability of computers to comprehend semantic meaning via “common-sense networks” to metrically represent the socio-cultural effects of natural language processing.

Each word or phrase on the LCD is connected via some semantic relationship to those adjacent to it. For example: “computer” -> “keyboard” -> “music”; or “cat” -> “water” -> “plant.” Computers have keyboards and keyboards play music, and cats don’t like water which is required by plants. These terms are sourced in real-time via an algorithm searching through MIT’s massive ConceptNet semantic network. (ConceptNet contains lots of things computers should know about the world, especially when understanding text written by people.) As a result, the possible combinations are practically infinite, though occasionally highly amusing or unexpected.

“With a degree of scrutiny it becomes apparent that the first and last LCDs always have the same two words: ‘person’ on the first, and ‘money’ on the last. The semantic pathway between them, though innumerably varied, begins and ends identically each time,” the Maker notes.

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Definitions was created with the help of Arduino, Processing and the ConceptNet API. As searching through 15 levels of connections is not computationally trivial, it required some tricks to keep a diverse set of results coming through, which were then archived and displayed via serial across the LCDs, all driven by a single Arduino Mega (ATmega2560).

“Many tools have been developed to give computers better ways to understand people – via analysis of facial expressions, written language, speech, and internet activity – allowing for the prediction of intent and future action,” Ma shares. “How do the resulting digital ontologies and software representation express, mutate, or influence qualities of human experience? Is there a tension between the hypothetical outcomes of these tools and their practical, quotidian applications?”

Intrigued? Watch the installation in action below, and then head over to Definition’s project page here.

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