Bots for Beginners / Emma Winston

Wed 06 Apr 2016

New to bots? We caught up with artist Emma Winston, ahead of our event The Art of Bots, to get her take on the basics of these tiny computer programmes:


How would you describe what a bot is?

I would describe a bot as the software equivalent to a robot. A bot runs automated, repetitive, pre-defined tasks, which can take any form. They’re not always intelligent, just as robots aren’t always intelligent; but they do what they’re told (mostly), and can be useful for all sorts of different day to day applications.

How do they work?

That depends entirely on the bot, since they are almost as varied as people are! A computer scientist could probably give you a good simplified run down of rules that hold true for all bots, but I am not a computer scientist.

What are they used for?

All sorts of things, good or evil. They can be used when a simulation of a person is required, but no person is available – in tech support, for instance. They can be used for advertising (if you’re on pretty much any social network for any length of time you’ve most likely picked up a follower or two who seems innocuous enough, but click through to their profile and it turns out they’re only there to sell you stuff or spam you). Google uses bots to discover and index new web pages every hour of every day.  

The uses of them that I’m most interested in are those which are creative; using them to generate art, or poetry, or games, or jokes, or stories. Twitter seems to be the platform with the most vibrant community for this kind of botmaking.

What is it about bots that makes you want to work with them?

In general I am interested in the intersection between technology and human emotion. I think there is a lot said, and written, about the digitisation of the modern world leading to a loss of human connection and emotion and creativity and love but that doesn’t resonate with my experience of technology at all. I make (extremely personal!) electronic music and find it to be the medium I’ve gelled with the most after years of dabbling in various genres and means of creation; as a teenager my friendship group and I bonded over going to the computer room at lunchtimes and coding each other HTML layouts for our personal blogs. It was instrumental in how we shared things and communicated with each other. Both the creative potential for Twitter bot creation and the lovely community surrounding it really drew me to working with bots as a creative medium.

Can you tell us more about the bots you make?

With a couple of exceptions, most of my bots are versions of the ‘tiny’ bot, as popularised by Tiny Star Fields and Tiny Seas – that is, a scene or image which is generated by the bot using emoji or sometimes Unicode.

I like making these because it’s easy to come up with a framework and then have the bot swap variables in and out depending on what the given scenario is – for the Tiny Gallery, my most popular bot, the ‘gallery’ is fixed, but the paintings on its walls and its visitors are swapped in and out by the bot. Graphic Score Bot is an exception since what it generates is much more complex – it uses code to spit out vector images, the shapes and colours of which are the swappable variables. I am horrible at maths and found it very difficult to dictate where and how the lines should be drawn – the coding of it ended up being as improvisatory as the music (at The Art of Bots) will be.

What is the relationship between you, the bot creator, and the bot?

I’m not sure, always. One of the things I quite like about bots is that once they’re done you can just leave them to get on with things if you like. I am doing a PhD at the moment which is a huge long-term project and having well-defined, small things which I can complete and ship keeps me sane – I thrive off completing stuff.

Graphic Score Bot is the only one of my bots currently that I really want to continue developing and working on and adding to long-term – I feel like once I’ve raised the others I can let them go and do their own thing.

Do you need any particulars skills or knowledge to make bots?

I used to work as a front-end developer for a while before I went back to academia and I think the coding knowledge helps but isn’t essential – there are certainly ways to build bots without knowing how to code. Having fun ideas helps!

What tips would you give someone who wants to make bots, but doesn’t know where to start?

Tracery and Cheap Bots Done Quick. Seriously. Tracery is a language developed by Kate Compton for creating generative grammars, while Cheap Bots Done Quick is a platform made by George Buckenham which allows Tracery to be used to construct a working Twitter bot. It’s aimed at non-coders and I’ve seen really brilliant bots that were developed in it – all my emoji bots, and

Graphic Score Bot, run on that platform. Dive in. You’ll get it working.

It appears that most of our interaction with bots is online, and we are often oblivious when it happens. You are doing a live performance at The Art of Bots, alongside the Graphic Score Bot. Have you done this before?

I have not done this before but it feels like a relatively straightforward progression of my existing work. All of my previous experimental improvisation has taken place in a duo, Brute Love, with a friend. Having that second person there acts as a mutual anchor and a means of directing the performance and doesn’t leave you as adrift as a completely solo performance would.

Can you share with us some of your favourite bots?

Currently making me laugh more inexplicably than anything else on Twitter is David Lublin’s TV Helper, which is as silly as it is ingenious – the bot ‘watches’ TV, tries to recognise objects on the screen, then makes up subtitles for what it’s watching based on various TV show genres. It varies from nonsensical to making a frankly worrying amount of sense, and my favourite posts of all time all happened on Valentine’s Day, when the bot’s creator David Lublin switched its genre to ‘erotic fiction’ for 24 hours. I can’t repeat here any of its posts from that day.

I’m also really enjoying Lich’s Maze. Its creator Tyler Callich is a writer and a storyteller, and it really comes across in her bots, particularly this one – it generates psychedelic scenes from an imagined maze based on a mythological body of text, constructed from words and Unicode symbols. Each scene from Lich’s Maze could be its own story, game or film.

Kate Compton’s Tiny Space Adventure is basically the most advanced use of Tracery, her own grammar, that I’ve encountered. It generates images of tiny spaceships, their names, and a fragment of story, and is a million times more advanced than Graphic Score Bot is. The code is also fantastically economical and is published on its twitter profile if you want to take a look.


Emma Winston is a PhD student, musician and artist based in London, UK. She will present a live performance adaptation of Graphic Score Bot, as part of AND’s The Art of Bots showcase on 15 & 16 April 2016, at Somerset House

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