Friday, June 10, 2016
If Benjamin’s efforts are representative, then fiction writers have nothing yet to fear from artificial intelligence. Unless those fiction writers are Ingmar Bergman.
Benjamin is a “recurrent neural network called long short-term memory,” per Ars Technica, where writers still marvel at the technobabble of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He was fed the scripts of several dozen modern science fiction movies and spat out an eight-minute script that makes Billy Pilgrim’s story in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse-Five appear pretty coherent.
You can view the results here.
Yet there’s something endearing about this screenplay – it gets back to the core of science fiction, as Ars points out:
Certain patterns kept coming up again and again. "There's an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, 'No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,'" said Goodwin. "They're questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There's a pattern in sci-fi movies of characters trying to understand the environment." Sharp added that this process has changed his perspective on writing. He keeps catching himself having Benjamin-like moments while working: "I just finished a sci-fi screenplay, and it’s really interesting coming off this experience with Benjamin, thinking I have to have somebody say 'What the hell is going on?' Every time I use his tropes I think, oh of course. This is what sci-fi is about."
For Sharp and Goodwin, making Sunspring also highlighted how much humans have been trained by all the scripts we've consumed. Sharp said this became especially obvious when the actors responded to Sunspring's script as a love triangle. There is nothing inherently love triangle-ish about the script, and yet that felt like the most natural interpretation. "Maybe what we’re learning here is that because of the average movie, the corpus of what we’ve watched, all of us have been following that pattern and tediously so," mused Sharp. "We are trained to see it, and to see it when it has not yet been imposed. It’s profoundly bothersome." At the same time, it's a valuable lesson about how we are primed to expect certain tropes: "Ross [Goodwin] has created an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are."
In other words, it learns to write like a human learns to write – and is as bad at writing as humans are on the first attempt. We tend to have to consume a lot of writing – both good and bad – in order to even begin sorting out things in our own stories and in our own heads. And as science fiction is pretty tropey as writing goes, those tropes have to be digested and processed as well in order for them to be reproduced with any quality. I’ll bet, given time and additional stuff to churn through its algorithms – and I’m tempted to think a better story could come by feeding the AI novels rather than screenplays (which require more human-level interpretation ) AI could complete a more coherent story.