The Algorithm That Could Take Us Inside Shakespeare’s Mind
“Quirky has always been part of my identity,” says Scott Wilder, 37, who lectures on Shakespeare at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and creates software that provides translations for Shakespeare’s works in 17 languages. He isn’t afraid to be a bit odd.
When Wilder was a sophomore in high school in Los Angeles, his mom and dad gave him a pair of miniature gold spoons that had been worn by royalty and actors. So Wilder presented himself to his English teacher in class with the spoons on his finger as proof that he understood everything.
“The art and mischief that comes out of those cultural touchstones is what informs much of how I’ve dealt with my life to this day,” says Wilder, who did a stint in the Army before getting a job in finance in the Bay Area. When he discovered the Internet, he became enchanted by its ability to transport him to another place and time and to illuminate his way into the worlds of global players such as Mark Twain, the beloved British writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Shakespeare.
“The transformational moment for me was realizing that this was not just a cultural interest but a curiosity, and that has driven my life ever since,” says Wilder, who spent more than a decade working at Princeton in Silicon Valley.
In early 2015, after he moved back to Scotland, Wilder started wondering about his common-law wife, Patricia Rutherford, whom he had never met and whose date of birth he had only tracked on a report card.
“I started writing essays about her to look her up on the Internet,” he says. “She lived in London in a place that resembled a hospital; I’d never been to a hospital, so I was fascinated by her life.”
Inspired by other works of fiction, Wilder transformed an online essay into a software program that can find meaning in the quotations that appear in some of the 20,000 books that are published in the language each year. Wilder also applies the same algorithm to Shakespeare’s works.
“I was blown away by how successful it was,” he says of his work.
After more than two years of building the program, Wilder submitted it to an award program that awards grants to arts companies across the world. The algorithm won the Europa Prize, which came with an $85,000 award. Wilder then joined the Swedish Centre for Early Modern Studies in Stockholm to begin building his startup, Aloqa.
With this money and support, Wilder is working on a machine learning-based translation system that could someday translate the plays that were so important to Shakespeare — and to us — into other languages.