Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash: Literature in the Hands of Machine Learning

I love Harry Potter. When I closed “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” the first time, it felt like I was saying goodbye to childhood friends. A movie franchise, several Harry Potter universe books (like Harry’s faithful “Quidditch Through the Ages”), a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and a hop across the pond to see the first (and what was originally going to be the only) performance of “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child” later and my excitement for new Harry Potter material hasn’t abated, so when I learned that Botnik Studio’s predictive text keyboards, powered by Machine Learning, had produced a new Harry Potter chapter, I rushed to read it.

“Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash” is no JK Rowling masterpiece, but by feeding their machine learning algorithm seven Harry Potter books, something pretty amazing was created. While the similarities to JK Rowling’s world may be initially lost in the comedic euphoria produced by “Ron’s Ron shirt”[1], a careful read-through shows elements that are prominent throughout the series that, through the way the algorithm expresses them, gives us a glimpse into the difference between the human mind and that of a machine.

In Harry Potter’s world, the ceiling of the Great Hall at Hogwarts is bewitched to reflect the sky outside, so when the keyboard says that the “sky outside was a great black ceiling,” it is a clear connection to that of the original universe. Spiders are rampant in Harry Potter’s world, particularly in the second book, and often in association with Ron, who is deathly afraid of them, so the machine saying, “Ron was going to be spiders, he just was,” shows that the keyboard picked up that when spiders were mentioned, Ron wasn’t generally far behind. As far as the keyboard’s version of the Death Eaters planning to rid Harry of his magic, well, I’m sure if that had been a possible way to get him out of their way in the Harry Potter universe, the original Death Eaters would’ve done it as well.

Perhaps the strongest connection between the original universe and that from Botnik Studios is that of food, which is a symbol of safety and comfort in Harry Potter’s world. Food is often withheld or only available in unsavory forms when Harry is at home over the summer with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, but when he gets back to Hogwarts, it’s an immediate feast, with everyday meals just a step below that. Whenever there is something to celebrate, there is a feast. If a character is upset, they get food. Food is present in or right after all the great moments and consumed right before anything difficult to comfort and empower. When the keyboard’s version of Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, it’s a little odd, but when the demise of the Death Eaters makes Harry hungrier than he’s ever been before, it’s almost like reading the original Harry Potter. Almost.

[1] “Harry Potter”. Botnik. http://botnik.org/content/harry-potter.html. (2/10/18)

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