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Can Artificial Intelligence replace screenwriters? It's not time to panic (yet)!

Posted , by Harv

You know they're gonna try it, right?

A few years ago, the Hollywood studio big-wigs were momentarily distracted from chomping on their cigars and swilling their brandy snifters by an article that did the rounds on all the blogs. It detailed how Netflix used data analytics to design the show House of Cards, which has subsequently become a huge success in the US.

The computer was fed a bunch of stats about successful shows, viewer preferences, content programming, stars and directors, and spat out the basic idea for House of Cards.

It didn't write the scripts, of course, but it helped pick the director David Fincher, and its main star, Kevin Spacey, and it helped set the general tone and target audience.

   

 

Check here if you're a "reader".

On the surface, back in 2006, this probably seemed pretty amazing, but, in truth, it only hinted at a possible future of entertainment.

I mean, let's face it, it hardly takes a genius to suggest David Fincher for pretty much anything targeting young to middle-aged adults, does it? And pairing him up with Spacey? Well, someone watched Se7en. Big deal, right?

However, the reason this would have gotten the attention of the Hollywood elite is that is showed that a computer could make intelligent choices about content. In an era where stars no longer guaranteed box office success and the hackneyed old trick of repackaging established properties in endless sequels and re-makes was wearing thin, this would have been music to the studio execs' ears.

And, of course, the big question: could AI, cognitive computing and data analytics do more than merely inform decisions about content? Could the AI actually do the writing?

If it could, the execs could finally fuck off those pesky, unstable screenwriters and stop paying hefty royalty fees to source creators! Imagine a pure money-making machine with guaranteed hits and no need to deal with those annoying, free-thinking and stubborn creatives who make it all happen!

Can't you just imagine them wringing their hands together and cackling with glee?

Well... fast forward to, well, now... and sorry to tell you screenwriters, the inevitable has happened! Someone has used a computer to generate a screenplay, and End Cue productions decided to make it.

Here's the result:

 

   

 

So how is it? Well, it's a surprising blend of emotionally charged statements, miscommunicated dialog, sudden mood changes, and random nonsense. Its narrative structure is haphazard and inconsistent, and it really can't be said to make any kind of sense.

What's surprising is the things the film gets right. It has defined characters that interact fairly close to how humans do, and one answers the other with poignant and character-revealing honestly.

Since the algorithm was fed real film scripts as the data basis for its screenplay, you might expect that it would be a mash-up of lines from other movies that you could recognize. This is not the case, the piece is really a stand-alone original rather than a collection of references.

Then again, there's also a lot of "what do you mean?" and "I don't understand what you're telling me" type dialog in between, which gets so silly it becomes comical. You might argue that the computer intended this back-and-forth as a commentary on the inefficiencies of analogue verbal communication in the fast-moving digital age... but, yeah, call me a sceptic on that one.

So what did we learn here? Well, in my opinion, we learned there is absolutely nothing to worry about, at least in the foreseeable future.

The parts of this short film that work are almost entirely due to human interpretation, not the original AI author's intention. Likewise, the human mind is designed to search for meaning in all events -- it's one of our greatest strengths and simultaneously one of our biggest weaknesses -- so the meaning perceived by the audience is something they bring to the table.

The computer created a framework for a short film, and spat out some random words for the actors to say, but the humans are the ones that bring the meaning and artistry to the piece. The actors interpret which lines to play as humour, which to play straight, and the director, cinematographer and composer make all the choices that communicate to the audience how they should feel.

Point being, there is no evidence the computer had any artistic intention, other than to satisfy its algorithm. There's no hint of a sentient being behind anything the computer created, anymore than there is behind a computer solving a mathematical equation.

So fret not, screenwriters, you're not going to be replaced. At least, not yet!