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Deep Story

It looks as though a “story game” would therefore be a better test of whether computers can think than the chess and checkers games that currently predominate at AI conferences. But what would the story game look like? In the story game, we would give both the computer and a master human storyteller a relatively simple sentence, say: “Gregor woke to find that his abdomen was as hard as a shell, and that where his right arm had been, there now wiggled a tentacle.” Both players must then fashion a story designed to be truly interesting, the more literary in nature-in terms of rich characterization, lack of predictability, and interesting language-the better. We could then have a human judge the stories so that, as in the Turing Test, when such a judge cannot tell which response is coming from the mechanical muse and which is from the human, we say that the machine has won the game.

How will future machines fare in such a game? I think the length of the story is a key variable. A story game pitting mind against machine in which the length and complexity of the narrative is open-ended would certainly seal the machine’s defeat for centuries to come. Though advocates of Strong AI would hold that a machine could eventually prevail in a contest to see whether mind or machine could produce a better novel, even they would agree that trying to build such a machine today is unthinkable. The task would be so hard that no one would even know where to begin.

In short, though the Turing test is, as noted, too hard to provide the format for mind-machine competition at present, many people think they can imagine a near future when a machine will hold its own in this test. When it comes to the unrestricted story game, however, such a future simply can’t be conceived. We can of course imagine a future in which a computer prints out a novel-but we can’t imagine the algorithms that would be in operation behind the scenes.

So, just to give Strong AI supporters a fighting chance, I would restrict the competition to the shortest of short stories, say, less than 500 words in length. This version of the game should prove a tempting challenge to Strong AI engineers. And, like the full version, it demands creativity from those-mind or machine-who would play it.

How then might future machines stack up against human authors when each is given that one sentence as the jumping-off point toward a short short story?

I may not be positioned badly to make predictions. With help from the Luce Foundation, Apple Computer, IBM, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and the National Science Foundation, I have spent the past seven years (and about three-quarters of a million dollars) working with a number of researchers-most prominently Marie Meteer, a scientist at Bolt, Beranek and Newman; David Porush, a professor at RPI; and David Ferrucci, a senior scientist at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center-to build a formidable artificial author of short short stories.

Part of what drives me and other researchers in the quest to create such synthetic Prousts, Joyces, and Kafkas is a belief that genuinely intelligent stand-alone entertainment systems of the future will require, among other things, AI systems that know how to create and direct stories. In the virtual story worlds of the future, replete with artificial characters, things will unfold too quickly in real time for a human to be guiding the process. The gaming industry currently walks a fine line between rigidly prescripting a game and letting things happen willy-nilly when humans make choices. What is desperately needed is an artificial intelligence that is able to coax events into a continuous narrative thread while at the same time allowing human players to play in a seemingly infinite space of plot trajectories.

The most recent result of my toil in this regard (in collaboration with Ferrucci and Adam Lally, a software engineer with Legal Knowledge Systems of Troy, N.Y.) is an artificial agent called Brutus.1, so named because the literary concept it specializes in is betrayal. Unfortunately, Brutus.1 is not capable of playing the short short story game. It has knowledge about the ontology of academia-professors, dissertations, students, classes, and so forth; but it would be paralyzed by a question outside its knowledge base. For instance, it doesn’t know anything about insect anatomy. Therefore, the sentence involving Gregor would draw a blank.

Nonetheless, Brutus.1 is capable of writing short short stories-if the stories are based on the notion of betrayal (as well as self-deception, evil, and to some extent voyeurism), which are not unpromising literary conceits (see sidebar, “Betrayal,” by Brutus.1-as well as Richard III, Macbeth, Othello.)

Such near-belletristic feats are possible for Brutus.1 only because Ferrucci and I were able to devise a formal mathematical definition of betrayal and endow Brutus.1 with the concept (see sidebar, “The Mathematization of Betrayal”). But to adapt Brutus.1 to play well in a short short story game, it would certainly need to understand not only betrayal, but other great literary themes as well-unrequited love, revenge, jealousy, patricide, and so on.

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