People Keep Lying About Computer “Creativity”

No, artificial intelligences can’t write screenplays or cut movie trailers. Not yet, anyway.

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Nearly 15 years ago the British futurist Ian Pearson predicted that by 2010 the world’s highest-paid celebrity would be an artificial “synthespian.” That didn’t pan out, but now journalists and PR people are trying to hype A.I. entities as filmmakers behind the camera. 

Artificial intelligence writes ‘perfect’ horror script,” headlines trumpeted a few weeks ago. Now you can “Watch the first ever movie trailer made by artificial intelligence.”

Neither of these things appears to be remotely true.

When you read past the headlines, it turns out that the movie trailer was not made by artificial intelligence, nor did artificial intelligence write a horror script at all, let alone a “perfect” one. (A screenplay does exist that was written by a computer, but — well, I’ll come back to that.)

Instead, both the horror script and the movie trailer were made by, well, human beings.

The most you could say is that the script and the trailer were made with artificial intelligence — that is, with assistance or input from a computer system. Even that might be overstating the level of “assistance” (a little like Mommy letting a three-year-old “help” make a birthday cake, perhaps).

Really, it seems these projects were exercises in how creative humans could be with materials supplied or suggested by computers.

With the trailer, Fox approached IBM in connection with their upcoming A.I.-themed horror film Morgan and asked whether Watson could analyze a movie and generate a trailer.

According to the story and the accompanying video, after analyzing 100 classic horror films and looking for patterns that might correlate with scariness, Watson analyzed Morgan and algorithmically selected scenes or clips which a human editor then edited into a trailer.

Alas, there is no indication that Watson was given any information about what trailers look like, or what kinds of scenes from films tend to be selected for them.

Nor is there any insight into what Watson was going for in selecting material. The story talks overheatedly about “program[ming] Watson to understand what fear is” and Watson “using what it had learned and perceived fear to look and sound like.”

Those phrases might be no more than journalistic conceits, of course. But was Watson tasked with picking clips based purely on scariness? If so, it wasn’t very successful. The scenes in the trailer include various moods: relaxed, tense, frightening.

To be sure, that kind of mix can be successfully used in a horror trailer — and in fact the human editor has arranged the clips into a presentable sequence. (Crucially, the editor also overlaid the scenes with audio components — an expository voiceover line that appears not to go with the scenes it plays over; creepy humming and a singsongy nursery rhyme — that are largely responsible for what effectiveness the trailer has. There’s no indication that Watson had any input on these audio choices.)

You might get a similar mix of moods simply selecting scenes at random. Unless Watson knows more about trailers than the information at hand suggests, there’s no way to judge how well or poorly chosen these particular clips were. (Nor do we know, for that matter, how many clips Watson selected — whether the human editor used all the clips or only some, or how many computer-selected scenes might have been left on the cutting-room floor.)

Given a finished movie with scenes constructed by humans, a sufficiently talented editor could cut a non-terrible trailer from almost any mix of scenes, however well or poorly chosen. In other words, there’s a limit to how badly Watson could have done here.

A screenplay, of course, requires creativity of an entirely different order — one computers aren’t able even to fake at this point.

What’s the real story with that horror script? It seems that after analyzing scripts for popular horror films, the program picked out recurring elements common to many of them:

“We used [AI] to generate the premise and the key plot points of the film. Before a single word was written, our AI told us that if we wanted to match audience taste, we needed to make a horror film that featured both ghost and family relationships, and that a piano scene and a bathtub scene would need to be used in the movie trailer to increase the likelihood that our target audience would like it.”

So a computer program was able to recognize that popular ghost stories have ghosts in them, that “family relationships” are an important element in many popular movies (and also in many turkeys), and that pianos and bathtub scenes are popular horror-movie trailer elements. (In this case it sounds like the software tool actually did know something about trailers.)

Now, there are reasons good horror writers might want any of these elements in a story. (For example, bathtubs correlate with vulnerability; also, nudity is popular for its own sake.) But the computer hasn’t exactly offered a winning formula for writing a good story.

Now, that doesn’t mean that a computer can’t write a screenplay — of a sort. It seems an A.I. named “Benjamin” that was fed dozens of science-fiction screenplays really did take a stab at producing a four-page sample of the genre, called Sunspring. This was actually made into a short film with actors reciting the lines. Here’s some sample dialogue: 

H: You don’t have to be a doctor.

H2: I am not sure. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

H: I want to see you too.

H2: What do you mean?

H: I’m sorry, but I’m sure you wouldn’t even touch me.

H2: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

H: The principle is completely constructed for the same time.

H2: (smiling) It was all about you to be true.

H: You didn’t even see the movie with the rest of the base.

H2: I don’t know.

H: I don’t care.

H2: I know that’s a consequence. Whatever you want to know about the presence of the story, I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.

So, yeah. (Remarkably, the phrase “I don’t know what you’re talking about” occurs four times in this short story — an average of once per page. Whatever else it got wrong, “Benjamin” somehow anticipated that comprehension would be a problem.)

The thing is, this isn’t even bad writing so much as it is not really writing at all. On Twitter someone joked that Sunspring was “still a better script than 50 Shades of Grey.” But even that is a sort of sideways acknowledgement that 50 Shades is real writing — real enough to be genuinely bad, real enough to hate. You can’t “hate” Sunspring. You can’t feel anything toward it, any more than the algorithms that produced it could feel anything at all. 

P.S. And now on Twitter someone jokes, “Star Wars 7 feels like it was written by a computer.”

And yeah, you might feel that way — until you read an actual screenplay by a computer. Then you realize that a computer-generated Star Wars script would sound like this: 

Han: Who are you?

Rey: The ship is all about this system.

Han: I don't know.

Rey: The droid saw it.

Han: I said the Death Star is wrong again anyway.

Rey: I don't understand.

Han: It's a big money.

Rey: You think the First Order sits there?

You get the idea.