This is Only the Beginning

I want you to do me a favor and watch these two trailers for the same film:

I know which one I like better. The first trailer captures the mood, while the second tries to give us the plot. As someone who now avoids movie trailers, because I’d rather watch the 120 minute version of the film rather than the 3 minute version, the first trailer is exactly what I’ve been begging Hollywood to give me for well over a decade.

Only, Hollywood didn’t give me the first trailer. IBM’s artificial intelligence Watson did.

You can read about the process here. And yes, a person was involved in creating the final cut, but it’s easy to imagine this final step being automated in the near future.

Earlier this week, I met up with the legendary science fiction author and translator Ken Liu (you should totally read THE GRACE OF KINGS). Ken and I discussed the inevitable future in which machines and humans will one day write together, and the future beyond that when humans won’t be needed at all. I’ve blogged about this several times in the past, and Ken has written about the same topic in his coverage of NaNoGenMo, an annual attempt to create an entire novel using machine-learning bots. It will happen, the question is when, and what will the transition to there look like?

In another conversation this week, I was asked how long it would be before a machine wrote a novel that was better than the human counterpart. I believe we’re a long way off, but it’s striking to me that of the two trailers above, it’s the Watson-generated one that makes me want to see this film, and the human-created one that makes me feel like I’ve already seen the film. This is a unique circumstance of course, because the ephemeral and surreal leave me wanting more, while the chronological and story-driven teaser leaves me only mildly interested. Ephemeral and surreal might be what current AIs do best, as evident in this film, written entirely by an AI.

There are parallels here with children. I’m often shocked and moved by the things young kids say. Without a filter, and with a limited vocabulary, they often cut right to the heart of an issue with startling precision, or they dance around the unknown with stirring poetry. They see things differently, and they communicate differently, and many conversations are enlivened and enriched by their participation.

This is already true of artificial intelligences and machine learning artists.

We may mock them at first, the way we laugh when a baby babbles, but soon they are dropping insights, then painting striking imagery, then crafting wholly new stories, and then winning awards hidden behind the guise of a human author. I wrote about this last possibility in THE PLAGIARIST, where a man steals art from computer-generated worlds and passes it off as his own. I believe this will happen one day, and we will have to figure out how to cope with it. Who owns the art? The discoverer? The machine? The original programmer? What about when these bots are open-sourced, crowd-sourced, or self-replicating?

There are four primary stages or phases that I can see us going through before a wafer of silicon is awarded a Pulitzer. They are: Random Generator, Filter, Centaur, and Turing

We’re already in the first stage, Random Generator, because machines are helping us write novels now. Not everyone takes advantage of these tools, but I know of many authors who will fire up a random name generator when they’ve run out of ideas for secondary characters. The computer makes a number of suggestions, and the writer picks the one they like best.

This stage is going to increase in complexity, with plot points and locations offered up at random, as well as dialog choices. It’ll be a Mad-Lib style grab-bag, and the machines will learn from the users what choices win out (the way Google learns which search results are most helpful). In this way, they will only get better. We use writing prompts from professors and craft books already; the computers will be even better at this.

The second stage, Filter, will have a lot in common with an area in which we’re already creating art with the help of machines, a stage that Ken pointed out to me. Most of us have taken a photograph, swiped through a series of filters, and chosen the resulting pic that we like best. The Prisma App takes this to another level, creating works of art in various styles based on the photographs we feed it. We’ve been doing this both in photography and music via filters and effects for a while now. Soon, we will do it with the written word.

Imagine, for instance, taking a novel written in the first person, pressing a button, and reading through the same draft in third person. Or imagine a manuscript written in present tense, and quickly moving it all into past tense. This is in the realm of possibility today, if an engineer were so inclined. With a quick swipe, the flavor of the text is changed, and it’s up to the writer (or reader) to decide which style they like best prior to publication. Or better yet, just as readers can today change the size of the font in their Kindles, imagine being able to choose to read The Hunger Games in third person past tense, if you prefer this style.

There will be an uproar, of course, among some creatives who think the manner in which a work is presented should only be up to them, but that cat got out of the bag years ago, wrote some slash-fic, made a version of its favorite novel without any of the cuss words in it, read the last chapter first to make sure everyone important survives, and left a dead canary on the stoop. Artists are going to have to become comfortable with readers owning the right to read in whatever style they like. Person and tense will be suggestions by the author, not holy writ.

Imagine further being able to change the genders of characters, or their race, or sexual orientation. Now we cross into very interesting waters, because some of these choices are underrepresented due to commercial choices made by publishers. Will we lose some of the power of fiction if readers are able to choose to read only from the point of view of characters like them? What will this new power do for the empathy engendered by fiction? If used properly, it will be a boon. If used improperly, it will be a setback. Me? I’m for having more choices and options and seeing what the reader decides.

All of this will be moot as we get into the third and fourth phases of AI literature. The third phase will entail novels written by Centaurs, or the partnership between human and machine. Competitive chess is already in the Centaur stage, with these mixed teams beating any of the top players or computers when they don’t partner. One day, I will sit down with my writing program, give the barest of prompts, and the computer will spit out rough prose for me to revise. Or I will write, ask for a prompt, and get a suggestion in return. We will co-author the work. Neither of us could have written the final piece alone. This is some wildness to consider, but I reckon it’ll happen during my lifetime (I’d say we’re 15 – 30 years away).

Fourth stage is the Turing stage, the holy grail for readers, the end of writing as a profession, and I give it anywhere from 50 – 200 years. Entire novels will be written from scratch by machines, a million novels spurting out in the blink of an eye, and they will be tailored to individual readers, win major awards, and be as sublime and moving as anything we’ve ever read before. We balk at the idea now, but just as manually driving a car will seem insane one day (unless on a closed track by daredevils with death wishes), a handwritten novel will also seem bizarre. Why do with long division what a calculator on our phone can do for us?

Sure, people will still write, but very few will read these works. And the process will happen so gradually that hardly anyone will understand what has happened. We already read sports stories and financial articles written entirely by computers, and we either don’t notice or don’t care even when we’re told. Soon, these will be news articles, and pop culture articles. Things driven by fact. Then we will read reviews of books and film written by machines like Watson, who can analyze a work and tell us if it’ll be a bestseller (this is already a thing). From giving a simple grade between F and A, the machines will gain a language and an opinion to describe why a work is good or bad. We will get used to these developments in stages. The end result is inevitable. As a reader, I can’t wait.



15 responses to “This is Only the Beginning”

  1. I tried to share this article on Facebook and somehow lost it, but my takeaway on the trailers was the same as yours: The AI trailer is quite good; it gets its hooks in and makes me want to watch the movie. The human trailer, by contrast, boringly walks us through the plot points, and I’m honestly wishing the trailer would hurry up and end. Yawn. And wouldn’t you expect just the opposite? That the AI would create the boring, mechanical, plot summary; whereas the humans would create the artsy moody one? Pretty cool that the AI found the right formula (and fair note, it did so by studying human-made trailers, so we aren’t useless).

  2. While all of this is tantalizing as a reader, the co-authoring of man and machine that you mention is an exciting idea – and one that I think has the most underrated potential.

    As an idea person that thrives on collaboration, I think it would be endlessly fun and entertaining to put a story together with a computer. Give it a basic idea, a universe you want to explore but haven’t fully created, and see what it can string together. Polish it, give it back, rinse and repeat.

    Now if only we could program in friendly banter and witty quips for between drafts. A literary equivalent of JARVIS would be nice

  3. So the Watson trailer is better. Far better, in my opinion.
    I had many reactions reading your post.
    One of my WIPs involves a near future cyborg type being, and she breaks my heart (damn, I’m a good writer…), but for some reason a future where all the novels are created by bots makes me sad. Terribly sad. Why is that? I guess I want to think the skinbags are special. Beautiful. As rare and magical as the swirls on the tips of our fingers.
    Not for long, maybe. Not for long.
    I already miss a future where the human pulse drives us. That world is already gone. Maybe I just need to get over it.

  4. Computers most definitely can become better tools for writers, though there doesn’t seem to be enough of a market to entice serious work on the part of software developers. Most likely, the best software out there is proprietary hack code created for personal use by writers with coding skills.

    Your perception of Watson’s superior trailer making skills is an illusion. Watson is incapable of inductive reasoning, so it is unable to resolve ambiguity. This means it can’t understand plot, it can’t tell the difference between the protagonist and antagonist. It only sees top-down correlation, which is why it produced the trailer you prefer, because that was the only kind of trailer it was capable of producing. To you, it hit a double, but in reality it was born on second base.

  5. The first trailer wouldn’t compel me to even give it a second thought, much less view the movie.

    The problem, I see, with their experiment, is they used existing trailers to train Watson. I’m therefore surprised that the result isn’t more like the second trailer. In my mind, Watson didn’t do a very good job.

  6. I like the idea of the first three of the four stages with some exceptions like being able to change tense and POV. I’m one of those creatives that believe in art being presented from an artist’s point of view.

    What is the point, from an artist’s perspective, of having a machine create art? Is it to have bragging rights that someone coded an AI program that can make art or music or write a novel? Big deal, except that it would be quite the feat of programming.

    It’s what’s behind the story (art) that makes it uniquely human. Would a machine be inspired to write a dystopian novel about civilization being reduced to living in a group of Silos? Is a machine going to be inspired on it’s own, not told or asked, to write a song, create a painting, or write a novel (fiction or not) based on it’s experience of being a computer that touches the human soul? I don’t think it will, but it makes for good sci-fi.

    Good post, Hugh. I liked the first trailer better as well. As we know, marketers and not the film’s director are generally in charge of cutting a trailer. I hope your sailing up the east coast is going well.

    Fair winds and following seas!

  7. Aside from the AI point, I think the issue of mood vs. plot is an interesting one. The vast majority of book descriptions seem to contain a synopsis of the early story and then lots of superlatives – gripping, heartbreaking, shocking etc.

    I think it might be interesting to see how people responded to a book description/blurb that was far less descriptive but written in a way that conveyed the mood of the story.

  8. Christine Wagner Avatar

    I liked the AI trailer better, because it drew me into a mystery, made me ask questions. The answers are in the movie. The second trailer did tell me too much, and made me wonder if I even wanted to watch the movie.

  9. I wrote a novel once. That damned Bones dismissed it as being written by a pointy eared computer.

    I never tried to write again.

  10. Interesting. I like them both, but I do think I lean toward the first. I feel like I get a better sense of the movie from the first one. Plot AND mood wise.

    This is apt timing. I just received an email a few days ago that you may find interesting. Hopefully I won’t get in trouble for linking the direct site. It’s a site where computers write (humans do edit, but try to with a light hand) poetry and even a bit of Harry Potter.

  11. I would not watch this movie based n the first trailer, but I found the second one to get me hooked. We all have many entertainment options – so I don’t have time for the subtleties of the first trailer. I would totally overlook that movie.

  12. Showing an Artificial Intelligence a horror movie about Artificial Intelligence munching on humans poses a whole other set of questions.

  13. Hi Hugh,
    Joanna Penn sent me a link to this great piece of yours and like you, I’m fascinated by the coming narrative machines.

    As the digital revolution has brought with it the automation of human “work” in so many different fields, I perhaps naively believed that the last bastion of the human soul lies within our imaginations and abilities to create stories. If machines begin to dominate what was traditionally human intellectual property in the next few generations, I’m wondering where that leaves us philosophically. Dreams of writing the great American novel go right down the tubes…so what’s a guy to do to set himself apart?

    I think it’s safe to say that “I think, therefore I am” just doesn’t cut it any more as our secret sauce as beings.

    What would Jung think about all this? Will the collective unconscious include the souls of machines? Will machines acquire “inner genius” as they progress? And what will become of us? Will despair envelop humanity knowing that anything we can do, AI can do better? That Art is nothing more than orchestrated neural stimulus with no “meaning” underneath? Or will we come to believe ever more in a higher power so omnipotent that this great power has pre-programmed us to create our own evolutionary betters?

    If our gifts as artists can be reduced to zeros and ones, what does that mean? Heady stuff that will make us change the way we see ourselves inside the universe.

    Anyway, glad to see that others are contemplating these developments with the same fantastical uncertainty as I.
    All the best,
    Shawn Coyne

  14. I saw a quote recently that reminded me of your thoughts here. It also makes for a good writing prompt.

    “I’m not afraid of the day AI passes the Turing test. I’m afraid of the day AI fails the Turing test on purpose.”

    There’s already some talk about this on Reddit, so perhaps I’m late to the party. But still an intriguing (and kind of horrifying) thought.

  15. I actually like both trailers. However, they’re for different movies both of which seem interesting. One is more atmospheric and sets a mood – the second is more journalistic and outlines an idea. Knowing Hollywood I won’t be overjoyed with either of them – as movie making lately seems to be as heartless as an AI created story.

    I hope that my mind is changed in the future and AIs start making movies that are interesting to watch again.

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