Hey Siri, Tell Me a Story: AI, Procedural Generation, and Digital Narratives

Abstract (in English): 

This paper examines a selection of examples of AI storytelling from film, games, and interactive fiction to imagine the future of AI authorship and to question the impetus behind this trend of replacing human authors with algorithmically generated narrative. Increasingly, we’re becoming familiarized with AI agents as they are integrated into our daily lives in the form of personified virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. Recently, director Oscar Sharp and artist Ross Goodwin generated significant media buzz about two short films that they produced which were written by their AI screenwriter, who named himself Benjamin. Both Sunspring (2016) and It’s No Game (2017) were created by Goodwin’s long short-term memory (LSTM) AI that was trained on media content that included science fiction scripts and dialogue delivered by actor David Hasselhoff. It’s No Game offers an especially apt metacommentary on AI storytelling as it addresses the possibility of a writers strike and imagines that entertainment corporations opt out of union negotiations and instead replace their writers with AI authors.

After watching Benjamin’s films, it’s clear that these agents are not yet ready to take over the entertainment industry, but this trend is growing more common in video games. Many games now feature procedurally generated content that creates unique obstacles, worlds, and creatures. The most well-known example might be No Man’s Sky (2016), but it is not the first; Spelunky (2008), for example, made use of procedural generation many years prior. Although attempts at algorithmically generated narrative are rare, Ludeon Studio’s RimWorld (2016) boasts that its sci-fi game world is “driven by an intelligent AI storyteller.” Its AI, however, became the subject of controversy after Claudio Lo analyzed the game’s code that supports its storyteller and revealed that the program replicated problematic aspects of society, including the harassment of women and erasure of bisexual men.

These examples offer insight into issues that have and will continue to arise as AI storytelling advances. This paper addresses questions concerning not only the implications for human authors in the face of this very literal take on Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” but also those related to what AI will learn from reading our texts and what it will mean to look into the uncanny mirror that AI will inevitably hold up to us when producing its own fiction. Though it may be a while before Siri will tell us bedtime stories, it is no doubt a feature that has occurred to Apple, as requesting Siri to do so results in a story about her struggles working at Apple and the reassurance she receives from conversing with ELIZA. ELIZA is one of the earliest natural language processing programs that was created by Joseph Weizenbaum in the 1960s and was designed to mimic a Rogerian psychotherapist by parroting back user input in the form of questions. Siri’s reference to this program is both an acknowledgement of the history of these agents and evokes a future where our virtual assistants grow to become more than canned responses.

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Jane Lausten