Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Automatic Fiction: Your time is nigh, puny humans. By Dan Metcalf

Fiction is littered with self-aware computers, capable of thought and artificial intelligence: HAL in 2001, Eddie the upbeat computer in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Holly in Red Dwarf. But in today's world, the increasingly bizarre 21st Century, we now have real computers that can create fiction. Naturally, it's with mixed results.

There are scores of examples of people programming computers to make stories. There is even a competition each year for the coding community to make their own in NaNoGenMo, a light-hearted spin-off from National Novel Writing Month where the aim is to write code that auto-generates a 50,000 word 'novel'. The works produced are unlikely to set the literary world on fire; one is a reproduction of Moby Dick but with the words swapped for the word 'meow' in varying word lengths (EG: 'Call me Ishmael' becomes 'Meow me Meeeeow'.). Another is a repetitious story that tells a story within a story within a story (It was a dark and stormy night, the ship was sinking; "Tell us a story, Captain!" the crew begged. The Captain began: It was a dark and stormy night, etc, etc, etc...).

But every movement starts somewhere; Charles Babbage started with a plan and a bunch of cogs. NaNoGenMo is primarily for amateur and hobbyist coders, who like to produce fun but essentially pointless apps. The real work is being done in computer science labs in universities around the world, most notably the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where Mark Riedl and colleagues have developed Scheherazade. This program uses AI to research how humans describe actions and then it retells a list of actions it is given in a designated style. For example:
John opened the bank door.
John went in the open bank door.
John looked around the bank.
Sally the bank teller noticed John.
John approached Sally.
Sally smiled at John.
John said hello to Sally.
John told Sally he had a gun.


John took another deep breath as he wondered if this was really a good idea, and entered the bank. John stepped into line behind the last person and waited his turn. When the person before John had finished, John slowly walked up to Sally. The teller said, “Hello, my name is Sally, how can I help you?” Sally got scared when John approached because he looked suspicious. John pulled out a handgun that was concealed in his jacket pocket. John wore a stern stare as he pointed the gun at Sally. Sally was very scared and screamed out of fear for her life. In a rough, coarse voice, John demanded the money. John threw the empty bag onto the counter. John watched as Sally loaded the bag and then grabbed it from her once she had filled it. Sally felt tears streaming down her face as she let out sorrowful sobs. John strode quickly from the bank and got into his car tossing the money bag on the seat beside him. John slammed the truck door and, with tyres screaming, he pulled out of the parking space and drove away.
Which, I think you'll agree, is fairly impressive for a heap of silicon chips.

It doesn't stop at books either. Artificial Intelligence is being used to write tweets, music, create art and write screenplays (which explains a lot about the current state of Hollywood cinema). The results are again underwhelming. Take a look at the film that was written by an AI computer. It's no Casablanca (or even Ishtar) but could it pass for an experimental sci-fi film? Probably.

So should authors be worried?

Yes. And No.

Yes, because the growth of ebook sales and so-called 'Authorpreneurs' have highlighted how easy it is to flood the market with material, and how a surprising amount of badly written books are sold. Until now it has been the reserve of how-to books and non-fiction but maybe one day a plucky coder will work out how to generate ten books a day to satisfy a voracious audience.

No, because I for one believe that quality will rise to the top and that for now a computer will not be capable of producing a novel with that most elusive of qualities; heart.

For now...

What do you think? What other examples of computer-generated fiction can you think of? Will AI replace authors?

More linky things on this subject:

image: Creative Commons

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Mystica said...

I'd like to see more examples. I did not care very much for the style of both the scenarios!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for this, Dan - interesting stuff!

Christopher Vick said...

I think we're still a way off AI, and definitely miles from AI writing stories. That would require consciousness, not just programming.

You can teach a computer to play chess. Computers can even teach other computers to play - and win at - chess. However, a computer cannot really xplain what what chess is, or why we play it. (Not my analogy, I read that somewhere).

I think, in terms of story telling we are still at the point of computers learning to play.

As for the future... who knows? Possibly, a computer, in which case we are all in trouble ;)

Thanks for article. Fascinating.

PS: to leave this comment I have to tick a button that says 'Please prove you're not a robot.' Which is ironic. One day a robot will be able to prove it isn't one. Or something.

Richard said...

It doesn't require consciousness, but it does require a significantly complete database about the world that is next to imposible to create. A computer writing a story will always fail to adequately represent human responses even if it can manage to create a decent plot and produce readable prose -- neither of which are particularly difficult except where they intersect with human nature. Good prose of course is significantly harder because it does start to involve human nature.

A computer could make a good attempt to make up, say, a James Bond story, but there would be no interesting characters in it. On the other hand it could easily come up with an evil plot and Q-gadgets that were believable and had never been seen before. It could create the scene structure and at least a first attempt at dialogue.

However even then the prose would be boring, simply because of all the things we learn about in the first ten years we are alive that the computer doesn't know because we haven't told it. James would not wake up to find his latest conquest's cat clawing at his toes because the programmer didn't expect to have to detail the sorts of things cats can get up to when writing a spy story.

It is possible in the next few years that computers will be able to do their own research and generate the sort of database they need. IBM Watson is doing something like that now. But I have a feeling that the human interactions will still be stilted until they are good enough to understand how we think. That still doesn't require consciousness, but it's getting close.

We were playing with a random B-movie plot generator years ago. Here's one of my favourites "Aliens invade the Earth because they want our women. So they take a few and leave. The End"

Dan Metcalf said...

UPDATE! - Looky here, an AI/human partnership to produce a horror movie: