How Machine-Generated Screenplays May Affect Artists

Artificial intelligence generated the screenplay for sci-fi short-film, Sunspring. Turns out, machines like this might actually benefit writers and artists alike.

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Jun 24 2016, 11:00am

Image: Hilke Kurzke/Flickr

Earlier this month, director and co-creator Oscar Sharp released his comedic sci-fi short film Sunspring. Business as usual, except it was a computer named Benjamin that generated the screenplay. Chasing the heels of Google's Magenta artificial intelligence art projects, Benjamin's text embodies a rapidly growing trend in the artificial intelligence community where machinery and artistry have become disputably synonymous.

Sunspring stars Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch as the gold-clad and thoroughly perplexed character, H. "I don't know what you're talking about," an exacerbated H repeatedly pleads throughout the short. The line resonates with the audience, as the screenplay is humorously indecipherable.

Ross Goodwin, an AI researcher at NYU who wrote Benjamin's algorithm, found the script to be perplexing but surprisingly readable. The project began late March after Sharp provided voiceover work for a poem produced by a similar machine Goodwin was working on at the time. The director then asked if it could generate a screenplay and proposed a film collaboration.

The screenplay is a product of Benjamin being trained on a strict diet of sci-fi scripts via a recurrent neural network. After training Benjamin for nearly six weeks, the machine learned to predict letter and word patterns and was eventually able to formulate original sentences. The result is a uniquely entertaining, if not incomprehensible to a point of sheer-artistry, sci-fi production.

But the technology behind Benjamin is fresh and does not yet have the capacity to conform to standards of clear and congruent narrative patterns. Perhaps appreciating the project for its aesthetic worth and not just its obvious technical appeal requires a revaluation of artistic values.

"We are having the discussions we wanted [viewers] to have… what does it mean to have AI like this? What does it mean to have movies that are interesting but don't objectively make sense?" Goodwin told Motherboard.

There is a fear adjoining AI that machines are fated to dominate the workforce and such mechanical ventures into the arts are sure to incite technophobes with dread. However, Benjamin's rambling dialogue indicates that this is likely not the case for the art world.

"This demonstrates that crafting compelling screenplays requires a combination of talent and hard work," the Writers Guild of America, East, told Motherboard in a statement. "There might be a million people—or megabytes—who want to write movies, only professional writers can create characters and stories that engage people."

The creative can breathe easy that his pen will not be overtaken by artificial intelligence. The promise of Benjamin's screenplay poses little threat to the sanctity of screenwriting, and art, a realm contingent upon human expression, will not be smothered by technology's cold embrace. Rather, AI might actually improve the livelihoods of writers and artists alike.

Bertie Muller, chair of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behavior (AISB), spoke to this belief. The creative world may indeed be affected by budding AI pursuits, but not in the way you might think.

"Art is evolving to become truly interactive and contextual, with improvisational elements and intelligent conversational art becoming possible, manifesting itself in more meaningful dialogue between the art object and the observer," Muller told Motherboard. "Conceptualizing and implementing these new pieces will require collaboration between artists and technologists."

While art may mirror changing technological landscapes, it may also benefit from AI in terms of productivity. Brad Hayes, a researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who utilizes a similar algorithm to that of Goodwin's Benjamin in his Donald Trump bot, Deep Drumpf, recognizes that AI has the potential to be very valuable to the entertainment industry.

"The main use for something like this is the notion of human in the loop AI," he told Motherboard when asked about screenplay. "That means you're using the artificial intelligence ideas as a way of enhancing human capability. From this sense, that might be feeding ideas with a generated script, even if it's not perfect or for the most part nonsensical, but if you cherry-pick the output, you get things that are really entertaining."

AI generated writing, like what we observed in Sunspring, will most likely be used as an innovative form of brainstorming rather than its own solo artist. As a silent collaborator, this machinery has the potential to inspire the artist and perhaps even speed along production times. "We are sort of producing things that can augment other writers and it's really incredible that's possible," said Goodwin.