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An algorithm just wrote a movie. And it's pretty great

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

The artificial intelligence (AI) on your phone can predict (to an extent) what you're going to type next. It's able to do that thanks to constant analysis of your typing and language patterns. But can this sort of AI move beyond the mundane of predicting or completing your sentences? That was the question two film makers from New York posed.

To answer it, they created an AI system, fed it the screenplays of various science fiction movies and shows, and asked it to spit out a full screenplay. The results were amazing. Not only did the AI produce a whole (and detailed) screenplay for a nine minute-long short film, but the finished product even placed in the top 10 (out of hundreds of entries) in the Sci Fi London Film Festival's 48-hour film challenge.

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Starring Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch, the movie, titled Sunspring, is a quirky, if incoherent tale set in the distant future. It features a love-triangle, murder, deceit and some bizarre dialogues. The incoherence though, can be forgiven. After all, this is the first screenplay-turned-movie created entirely by AI.

Making Benjamin

The movie is the product of director Oscar Sharp's fascination with AI from his film school days at New York University (NYU). Sharp, unlike his classmates, preferred hanging out with the college nerds from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. It was here that he met his longtime collaborator and creator of the script writing AI, Ross Goodwin.

Together, the two set off on a journey to test the boundaries of AI. Sharp even experimented with creating a play where the lines were based solely on dice rolls. But that was only scratching the surface, both Sharp and Goodwin wanted to see whether AI could autonomously produce a script actually worth filming. Sunspring is the culmination of their efforts.

Goodwin, who has a background in AI, provided the script writer, a program he'd christened Jetson but later renamed it Benjamin. Benjamin was a Long Short Term memory (LSTM) recurrent neural network, AI normally used for text recognition. LSTM is able to dissect text down to its basics, learning to predict which letters follow which, working its way up to recognising which words and consequently phrases tended to occur together.

At the start of Sunspring, a list of 80s and 90s sci-fi movies and television shows appears on the screen. This was the body of work on which all the AI's learning was based. While Benjamin's initial attempts at writing a script consisted mostly of regurgitating script from the movies and shows it was learning from, the AI later began to understand the structure and form of a science fiction script. Eventually, Benjamin could produce entire, altogether original paragraphs of script.

The program could even generate remarkably specific, if seemingly contradictory, stage directions such as: "He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor." Not just this, the movie also has a catchy pop song - one written by Benjamin, based on the lyrics of 30,000 songs fed to it.

The one thing Benjamin couldn't learn to do, however, was figure out names. As a result, the characters in the movie are titled H, H2 and C. In fact, the original script had two characters named H, something Sharp tweaked to avoid confusion.

Author or assistant?

But a script and a movie are two different things. To actually bring the script to life, Sharp assembled actors Middleditch, Elisabeth Gray and Humphrey Kerr. In collaboration with Sharp they went about making sense of the rather abstract script.

The actors interpreted their lines as they saw fit, resulting in the formation of a rather confusing love triangle that is never specifically mentioned in the script. The actors introduced tone, mood and body language to actually bring the script to life.

While the finished product did well in competition, it's this gap between script and portrayal that stops Benjamin from being a real film maker. But is the AI even an author? In a conversation with ArsTechnica, Sharp and Goodwin weighed in on the matter. According to them, Benjamin fell short of being an author because of a lack of authenticity. While Benjamin could produce an 'original' script', it would never be truly original, based as it were on a corpus of other scripts.

However, given a larger corpus of scripts and a more advanced AI, it's possible that one day AI will be able to produce more coherent and bankable scripts. Hopefully it'll one day put Michael Bay's scriptwriters out of business.

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First published: 15 June 2016, 10:19 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

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