kccu

Candy Heart Messages Getting Stale? Computer-Generated Options Are No Help

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 12:22 pm

Wednesday is Valentine's Day, and if you struggled to find just the right words to tell a special someone how you feel, you have options.

There are the classic options: Store-bought superhero valentines or sappy Hallmark cards. Or if you're into something sweet — boxes of pastel-colored candy hearts, emblazoned with messages like "BE MINE," "XOXO" and "HOT STUFF."

But if those candy greetings feel tired, or just aren't striking the right note, Colorado researcher Janelle Shane has some ideas.

Shane is a research scientist who works with neural networks. These are computer programs that learn by example — like facial recognition software or language translators. She gives a program a set of words, and it learns to generate more like it.

So Shane fed her program a data set containing all 360 candy heart messages she could find online.

The program spit out a list of a whole bunch more words, all short enough to fit on a candy heart.

"The neural network tried its best to imitate these candy heart messages, but the vocabulary was tough to learn," she says.

The results weren't exactly heartwarming.

The program suggested phrases like "LOVE BUN," "CUTE KISS" and "YOU ARE BABE." Some of those have potential, but others are downright strange, like "BEAR WIG," "STANK LOVE," "YOU ARE BAG," "SWEAT POO" and simply "FANG."

Shane has run algorithms on a bunch of other lists too, like guinea pigs' names and paint swatch colors.

The program was "not good at that either," Shane says.

So why do it?

"Part of my experiment is to poke at the edges of what they're good at and what they're not good at. How much do they really know about the problems they're trying to solve?"

As for those wacky candy heart messages, it's too late this year (unless you're really into DIY), but she's thinking about printing up some next year.

I want to "see what happens when I give someone a candy heart that says, 'LOVE 2,000 HOGS,' " she says.

Melissa Gray contributed to this report; April Fulton adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Be mine.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Oh, baby.

SHAPIRO: Hot stuff.

KELLY: These are just some of the messages you would find from a box of candy hearts. You know, the kind you get on Valentine's Day.

SHAPIRO: But what if you got messages like this?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My hag.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Or my bun.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fan me.

KELLY: Those sweet nothings come from Janelle Shane - well, from her computer at least.

SHAPIRO: She's a research scientist who works with neural networks. Those are computer programs that learn by example.

KELLY: Like facial recognition or translation software.

SHAPIRO: Just for fun, Janelle Shane fed her program a dataset with 360 actual candy heart messages - you know, hot stuff, be mine, et cetera.

KELLY: And the program generated its own candy heart messages, a whole bunch more.

SHAPIRO: Prolific - yes. Heartwarming - maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Love bun.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Cute kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: You are babe.

KELLY: OK, so some of those do have potential. Others, though, were downright strange.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Bear wig.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Stank love.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: You are bag.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sweat poo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Fang.

SHAPIRO: It's not just candy hearts. Janelle Shane has run algorithms with other lists, too, like guinea pigs' names.

KELLY: Pop Chop. Fuzzable. Death Sniffs. Death Sniffs the guinea pig, Ari. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That's not going to be named that any time soon.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: She also tried paint swatch colors.

JANELLE SHANE: And so it came up with a color named stanky (ph) bean. And like, it wasn't very good at that either.

SHAPIRO: Shane says there's actually a point in asking a neural network to take on all these odd tasks.

SHANE: Part of my experiments when I'm giving them these kind of silly data sets is to poke at the edges of what they're good at and what they're not so good at. How much do they really know about the problems that they're trying to solve?

KELLY: And those crazy candy messages - well, Janelle Shane says too late for this year, but they could still become a thing.

SHANE: No, I would be tempted to print some out for myself for next year, if nothing else, see what happens when I hand somebody a heart that says love 2,000 hogs yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT CANDY")

BOW WOW WOW: (Singing) She's got everything that I desire, sets the summer sun on fire. I want candy. I want candy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.