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AI-written films coming to multiplex?

If you're looking for a good movie, I suggest that you try It's No Game.

If you've never heard of it, that's okay. The film, which was released last week, is just under eight minutes long. It tells the story of a pair of Hollywood writers who learn that they are going to be replaced by an artificially intelligent algorithm that generates screenplays.

By now, I'm sure you've guessed the kicker: It's No Game was itself written by an artificially intelligent algorithm that generates screenplays.

Although the algorithm is still crude, we might be looking at the future.

The algorithm is called Benjamin - it chose its own name - and it is the brainchild of director Oscar Sharp and Mr Ross Goodwin, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher who is a graduate student at New York University.

Their idea was to feed a neural network lots of sci-fi screenplays and teleplays to give it a feel for dialogue, setting and plot, and then switch on the bot and see what came out.

Last year, as part of a competition, Benjamin scripted Sunspring, its first effort at a short sci-fi film. Three people who seem trapped somewhere - it feels like a bunker, but the screenplay calls it a "ship" - engage in quick dialogue that is utterly nonsensical and yet oddly charming. (Money quote: "I don't know what you're talking about." "That's right.")

What we learn from this is that AI can't really tell a good story yet, but a determined cast and director can sometimes make a lemon of a screenplay into somewhat watery lemonade.

Slate magazine opined that the film "feels like a movie shot in a foreign language you once studied but never really understood".  I don't entirely agree. The unadorned screenplay is bizarre but, when actually directed and acted, Sunspring offers a weirdly compelling tale of passion and betrayal. A monologue at the end is incomprehensible on the page, but burns with a certain life on the screen.

What we learn from this is that AI can't really tell a good story yet, but a determined cast and director can sometimes make a lemon of a screenplay into somewhat watery lemonade.

It's No Game is a better film than Sunspring in part because the story is better. But so is the acting. In particular, David Hasselhoff is by turns funny and creepy as an actor who has been infected by nanobots and voices the thoughts of an AI bot that just happens to be named Benjamin.

Yes, a lot of the dialogue is still nonsense, and the ballet number that Benjamin decided to insert towards the end (with an assist from an AI that chooses ballet moves) will try the patience of some viewers. But unlike Sunspring, the new film focuses on an actual idea. It's nicely recursive: an AI-scripted movie about AI-scripted movies.

And although the fear of the screenwriters and the robotic nature of the studio mogul are played for laughs, underlying the comedy is an unsubtle prediction: This day will come.

Which perhaps it will. In a paper last year, Google explained how it has trained a neural network to write what I suppose we might call short stories, apparently by feeding it a heavy diet of romance novels. They're not great short stories. Not yet. A sample: He was silent for a moment. It was quiet for a moment. It was dark and cold. There was a pause. It was my turn.

This might not be deathless prose, but Google's AI, which works by interpolating new sentences to link sentences it has been provided with, seems to have captured something of the genre.

Then there's Heliograf, the Washington Post's experimental newswriting bot. It made its debut providing brief updates from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Last autumn, the Post used the bot to write some of its election coverage.

Heliograf's stories, to be sure, are short, straightforward and not at all analytical. Still, the results are impressive - and pretty much impossible to distinguish from the work of the Post's human staff. Bloomberg LP also uses automation technologies for its news products.

I am not trying to raise some crazed AI alarm, and I don't think that creative writers will be going out of business any time soon. On the other hand, we live in an era when an AI-created novel was able to compete for a major literary prize in Japan. Titled The Day A Computer Writes A Novel, the book didn't win, but did make it past the first round. (A judge said that the novel was weak, among other things, in its descriptions of characters.)

So I suppose we had best stay tuned.

As for Benjamin, he  remains capable of wacky nonsense that somehow sounds terribly Hollywood. Here's the bot's own summary of what might be his next effort: The Squires Of The Landscape.

Set in 1942 in a post-apocalyptic world, the film follows the journey of a young man who falls in love with a sexy couple who have started to fall in love. As they fall in love, they learn that they are not alone in their own way. The film follows the two groups of people who reconnect with the world and their relationship and the secrets they live.

A post-apocalyptic love triangle featuring big secrets, all set in the era of World War II - what's not to like? Any day now, Hulu and Netflix will start bidding for an eight-part miniseries. I'll watch.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'AI-written films coming to multiplex?'. Print Edition | Subscribe