Friday

May 26th, 2017

Insight

Movies written by machines are multiplex-bound

 Stephen Carter

By Stephen Carter Bloomberg View

Published May 1, 2017

If you're looking for a good movie, I suggest "It's No Game." If you've never heard of it, that's OK. The film, just released this week, is a bit less than eight minutes long. It tells the story of a pair of Hollywood writers who learn that they will be replaced by an artificially intelligent algorithm that generates screenplays.

By now I'm sure you've guessed the kicker: "It's No Game" was itself written by an artificially intelligent algorithm that generates screenplays. Although the algorithm is still crude, we may be looking at the future.

The algorithm is called Benjamin -- it chose its own name -- and is the brainchild of director Oscar Sharp and Ross Goodwin, an AI researcher who is a graduate student at New York University. Their idea was to feed a neural network lots of sci-fi screenplays and teleplays to give it a feel for dialogue, setting and plot, then switch on the bot and see what came out.

Last year, as part of a competition, Benjamin scripted "Sunspring," its first effort at a short sci-fi film. Three people who seem to be trapped somewhere -- it feels like a bunker, but the screenplay calls it a "ship" -- engage in quick dialogue that is at once utterly nonsensical and yet oddly charming. (Money quote: "I don't know what you're talking about." "That's right.") Slate magazine opined that the film "feels like a movie shot in a foreign language you once studied but never really understood."

I don't entirely agree. The unadorned screenplay is bizarre, but when actually directed and acted, "Sunspring" offers a weirdly compelling tale of passion and betrayal. A monologue at the end, incomprehensible on the page, burns with a certain life on the screen.

What we learn from this is that AI can't really tell a good story yet, but a determined cast and director can sometimes make a lemon of a screenplay into somewhat watery lemonade. "It's No Game" is a better film than "Sunspring" in part because the story is better. But so is the acting. In particular, David Hasselhoff is by turns funny and creepy as an actor who has been infected by nanobots and voices the thoughts of an AI bot that just happens to be named Benjamin.

Yes, a lot of the dialogue is still nonsense, and the ballet number that Benjamin decided to insert toward the end (with an assist from an AI that chooses ballet moves) will try the patience of some viewers. But unlike "Sunspring," the new film focuses on an actual idea. It's nicely recursive: an AI-scripted movie about AI-scripted movies. And although the fear of the screenwriters and the robotic nature of the studio mogul are played for laughs, underlying the comedy is an unsubtle prediction: This day will come.

Which perhaps it will. In a paper last year, Google explained how it has trained a neural network to write what I suppose we might call short stories, apparently by feeding it a heavy diet of romance novels. They're not great short stories. Not yet. A sample:

"He was silent for a moment. It was quiet for a moment. It was dark and cold. There was a pause. It was my turn."

This may not be deathless prose, but Google's AI, which works by interpolating new sentences to link sentences it is provided, seems to have captured something of the genre.

Then there's Heliograf, The Washington Post's experimental newswriting bot. Heliograf made its debut providing brief updates from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Last fall The Post used the bot to write some of its election coverage. Heliograf's stories, to be sure, are short, straightforward and not at all analytical. Still, the results are impressive -- and pretty much impossible to distinguish from the work of The Post's human staff. Bloomberg also uses automation technologies for its news products.

I am not trying to raise some crazed AI alarm, and I don't think creative writers will be going out of business any time soon. On the other hand, we live in an era when an AI-created novel was able to compete for a major literary prize in Japan. Titled "The Day the Computer Writes a Novel," the book didn't win, but did make it past the first round. (A judge said that the novel was weak among other things in its descriptions of characters.) So I suppose we had best stay tuned.

Benjamin remains capable of wacky nonsense that somehow sounds terribly Hollywood. Here's the bot's own summary of what might be his next effort:

"THE SQUIRES OF THE LANDSCAPE

"Set in 1942 in a post-apocalyptic world, the film follows the journey of a young man who falls in love with a sexy couple who have started to fall in love. As they fall in love, they learn that they are not alone in their own way. The film follows the two groups of people who reconnect with the world and their relationship and the secrets they live."

A post-apocalyptic love triangle featuring big secrets, all set in the era of World War II -- what's not to like? Any day now, Hulu and Netflix will start bidding for an eight-part miniseries. I'll watch.

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Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. His most recent book is The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama (2011). He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.

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