Storytelling AI: How Artificial Intelligence Feeds Creativity

Artificial intelligence and the arts are two notions that have been considered as incompatible for a long time now. However, AI’s recent breakthrough in the creative world sheds doubt on that. At a time when the question no longer seems to be ‘if’ but rather ‘when’, we need to ask ourselves the place that we can make—and wish to make—for artificial intelligence in our works.

When it comes to creating, the very first place where AI comes to mind is, of course, the subject. And that’s been the case since forever (it’s a concept that is almost already referred to in the oldest known work of science fiction which dates back to the second century BC).

Moreover, this age-old obsession is without a doubt what explains a certain fear—or even aversion—with respect to artificial intelligence. Although it’s a rather healthy reflex, it would be a shame if it led us to not see the virtuous possibilities that AI and its technologies offer.

When AI arrives in the artistic world, some may initially react by ignoring its appeal or potential: “No machine can ever replace human creativity, never!” But is that really the case? Or is it simply a maxim that we repeat over and over again to reassure ourselves?

In search of the right place for AI

Artificial intelligence—an expression whose boundaries vary in time and space—already finds its usefulness ‘around’ creative works to improve their distribution. Among today’s powerful players, Netflix is the one we talk about most often. A host of articles have been written to tout its recommendation algorithms, how it used big data to predict the success of its House of Cards series or yet its machine learning programs that gradually learn how to personalize its content recommendations to you.

The visuals associated with the shows change according to users such as to optimize their propensity to click

But let’s focus on the creative act. Where does artificial intelligence fit into how we write and how we think? Today, three main possibilities seem to emerge: using AI as a means of dissemination, programming and then letting AI create ‘on its own’ and collaborating with AI

AI as a means of distributing innovative works

Among the platforms on which artificial intelligence is showcased the most, voice assistants come immediately to mind. Whether they are installed in your smartphone or in a smart speaker such as Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Home, these assistants are taking up more and more place in our daily lives.

Among the first conclusive experiences, BBC’s work of science fiction titled The Inspection Chamber, Storyflow’s interactive audio stories for children and The Wayne Investigation, where you are the investigator in Batman’s universe, have all harnessed the basic features of smart speakers. More recently, the audio adaptations for Alexa of the famous books where you’re the hero have been the talk of the town.

However, it must be said that these works exploit only a small fraction of the potential of smart voice assistants. The final result is a story with several possible outcomes, the structure of which closely resembles what was proposed in the interactive episode of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch.

To go further, we would need to start considering the entity itself, whether it’s called Alexa or Google Assistant, as a party or an actor in the story. But that is not a work that has yet to have truly emerged…

The general public will have to wait yet a little longer before being able to truly interact with a story carried by an artificial intelligence technology worthy of the name. In the meantime, for AI to express itself, creativity is something that happens in the backroom.

When AI takes up the pen

In 1957, Illiac Suite became the first partition to be composed by a computer system. The suite for string quartet resembles a piece of classical music:

It’s a feat, even if the music is dictated by mathematical laws that do not really apply to other creative worlds. So how can a storytelling form of AI develop if the logical rules are not enough?

Today, the dominant logic consists of feeding it pre-existing works. To produce a car ad, Lexus called upon Watson, i.e., IBM’s artificial intelligence program. The program was fed with 15 years of award-winning advertisements and, therefore, the result was highly inspired by it to the point of making it difficult to decipher the slightest originality within it.

A luxury car ad inspired by luxury car ads therefore resembles a luxury car ad...

The same process was used by student Zack Thoutt, who resorted to AI to complete the series of Game of Thrones novels. The program based itself on the previous volumes to ‘predict’ what would happen next. And despite the low number of works consulted, the resulting story is rather coherent and credible with the author’s world.

Given these techniques, creators are therefore faced with the challenge of correctly choosing the ‘basic creative material’ seeing as material that is too disparate risks producing a style that is a little too robust…

But beware of the perverse effects: when developing Yurie, a conversational AI application based on French copyright-free (and therefore old) texts, its creators discovered that it regularly used sexist language. It’s a very sad legacy…

Despite these risks, the method is promising although largely perfectible… As such, two short films, namely Sunspring in 2016 and Zone Out in 2018, generated a lot of buzz because of their casts of Hollywood stars.

Time after time, the result is convincing but the inconsistencies still remain too numerous, making it impossible to be swept up by the story. Too often, it appears that AI loses the train of its own story: its inability to preserve a form of narrative continuity is a recurring critique that is made against the creative forms of artificial intelligence.

So how can these imperfections be eliminated? Of course, a first solution would reside in technology. Machine learning methods are improving quickly and may eventually produce better results. However, another path is henceforth possible: creative collaboration between man and machine.

Humans and AI joining forces to tell stories

Shelley uses artificial intelligence to tell terrifying stories. To train the application, its designers followed the recipes detailed above: Shelley ‘read’ more than 140,000 stories published on r/NoSleep (a Reddit forum).

The beginning of the story is posted on Twitter and the rest is written by the AI application based on users’ responses. Machine ‘learning’ is therefore one of the two pillars on which these stories are based (the other one being human involvement).

The result is a sort of ‘exquisite human-machine cadaver’ of variable quality, but whose originality and coherence are strengthened by collaborating with users with different ideas and styles.

In the case of all of these collaborative creations, the challenge is finding the right balance, determining what is expected of each of the two entities behind the story. The role played by AI will therefore evolve according to the work and the creative need.

The team behind The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, which almost won a literary award in 2016, gave a rather minimalist role to artificial intelligence all in all. Its designers wrote a novel which was then decomposed and recomposed by AI for the purpose of mapping it, thereby contributing to only 20% of the work.

Conversely, the creative dynamic behind Progress Bar seems much more virtuous and balanced. In this film scripted and produced by a human being, the program wrote the dialogues of one of the characters (itself a form of AI).

The immediate result seems to be much closer to what we expect from a movie. It becomes more difficult to differentiate this film from another one entirely scripted by a human being. Finally, today, collaboration with the machine makes it possible to erase the imperfections of its stories.

But that goes beyond, and it must go beyond. AI’s contribution paves the way for human creators to find inspiration in it and—why not—define a personality for its characters or a better structure for its story.

The following question therefore remains to be answered. How will the merit and copyright be distributed between the human scriptwriters, the artificial intelligence tools and the people who programmed these entities?

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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