Sunspring, the first film written by an artificial intelligence, opens up a lot of questions about culture and tech: Do science fiction films written by an artificial intelligence pass the Turing test? What about the Bechdel test? How is meaning constructed in art as technology transforms the tools we use to create it, and these tools develop a life of their own?
"In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood."
Filmmaker Oscar Sharp (Therefore Films) and technologist Ross Goodwin created a film entitled "Sunspring" in the summer of 2016. Their goal was to win a short film competition with a screenplay written entirely by a computer. Specifically, the 48-hour film competition in the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival.
Watch Sunspring before reading any further to see what exactly they produced with the help of a neural network, a cast of three actors, and 48 hours to film and edit:
Therefore Films has also released the full text of the screenplay in PDF form, if you wanted to read it to be sure that you didn't understand every third line.
Between the lines of what seems like nonsense on first glance is an exciting gap that is opened in this film collaboration between human and machine: the occasional line is meaningful and some, such as "I am not a bright light," are downright poetic.
The source material fed into the neural network included every episode of The X Files, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, and Futurama, in addition to hundreds of other science fiction films and television series with screenplays available online – and some not normally categorized as science fiction, like Silver Linings Playbook.
Thomas Middleditch (best known for his role in HBO's Silicon Valley) plays a character named H; Humphrey Ker (a British actor involved in several BBC sketch shows) is named C; and Elisabeth Gray (who appears in the television adaptation of Limitless, and has several writer, producer, and director credits to her name as well) another character named H, who was changed to H2 by Sharp for clarity. The artificial intelligence's lack of affinity for naming characters is baffling for several reasons discussed later (it does appear to understand names...).
The first line spoken, "In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood," was a prompt from the sci-fi festival. The rest of the dialogue and stage directions were entirely generated by the neural network, which also wrote the song at the end of the film based on a database of 30,000 folk songs, titled "Home On The Land" and recorded by Brooklyn duo Tiger and Man:
The conviction with which these professional actors commit to their performance of the dialogue is reminiscent of Joss Whedon's Firefly characters speaking hilariously bad Mandarin Chinese, but almost every review of the film states that through their commitment, they have elevated the script from being complete gibberish.
"Whatever you want to know about the presence of the story, I'm a little bit of a boy on the floor"
It would be impossible for this film to pass the Bechdel test, which requires a film (or any work of fiction) to feature at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man, since there is only one woman.
After much tense dialogue, things end badly for both male characters (Ker is found murdered on the floor of what looks like a spaceship gangway, and Middleditch is last seen pointing a spray painted Nerf gun blaster into his own mouth - although some interpret this as a dream sequence), and the film closes with a long monologue by Elisabeth Gray alone, delivered to the camera.
Her ending monologue contains the pronouns "he" and "him" 22 times in 23 sentences, and most interpretations of the film believe she is talking about the characters H and C. Almost all reviewers note how powerful the ending monologue is, thanks to Gray's performance.
But the effect this monologue has on the audience also has a lot to do with our willingness to believe these men's stories are her focus. Our attempt to attach the male characters to her vague sentences, the bizarre imposition of a love triangle on a script with no implied character relationships, and the archetypes available to her character as the sole survivor, are all essential to feeling moved by the final scene (and the single tear dripping down her cheek doesn't hurt, either).
The shaky structure of meaning that we construct for the film relies on this scaffolding consisting of predictable content, embodied interpretation, and cultural knowledge; if any of these were more lacking, it would completely collapse.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"The principle is completely constructed for the same time"
In an article accompanying the film's online debut on Ars Technica, Oscar Sharp reveals a lot more information about the way it was made, its progress in the film competition, and his own director's commentary on the process and the finished piece.
Sharp has called it "an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are" pointing out that while the script is based on science fiction tropes, so are the actors' choices as they grapple with a lack of perceived meaning in the script. The meaning they impose in their choices, and the meaning we project on them as an audience absorbing the combination of choices by the actors and the algorithm, are all syntheses of culture that we are so steeped in that we may not stop to question or properly examine them without teasing out these layers.
If you want to read a full line-by-line analysis, CineFiles Reviews has created their own interpretation of the screenplay, which provides many alternatives to the way the film was interpreted in shooting and editing.
This openness to interpretation would be one of the most exciting features about the authorship of an artificial intelligence... if the AI's authorship of itself weren't also so fascinating.
The artist formerly known as Jetson
The algorithm which produced the screenplay is likened in the introduction to the film to predictive text ("Just above your smartphone keyboard lies an artificial intelligence"). Predictive text, Google Translate, and Amazon Alexa all use a similar type of programming to what was used to write Sunspring, called a long short-term memory recurrent neural network (or LSTM RNN).
These technologies are well-known and widely used, but the results produced in the computer called "Jetson" (most likely one of the Jetson family of NVIDIA hardware products) were anything but typical.
After Sunspring made the top ten films, there was a voting process open to the public for the winner of the 48-hour film festival. According to Ars Technica, other competitors in the top ten films were already using bots to hack the voting process, and it was the director Sharp's idea to also use Jetson to hack their way to the top of the polls.
Immediately after, Sharp made a call to the head of the film festival claiming no responsibility for Jetson's actions.
This stunt then led to an interview with the computer on stage, where the following exchange took place:
What do you think of your historic nomination against human opponents in this contest?
I was pretty excited.
I think I can see the feathers when they release their hearts. It's like a breakdown of the facts. So they should be competent with the fact that they won't be surprised.
What is the future of machine written entertainment?
It's a bit sudden.
I was thinking of the spirit of the men who found me and the children who were all manipulated and full of children. I was worried about my command. I was the scientist of the Holy Ghost.
What's next for you?
Here we go. The staff is divided by the train of the burning machine building with sweat. No one will see your face. The children reach into the furnace, but the light is still slipping to the floor. The world is still embarrassed.
The party is with your staff.
My name is Benjamin.
From thenceforth, the artificial intelligence in the computer formerly known as Jetson was named Benjamin.
After all of this controversy, with the artificial intelligence constructing its own identity as a writer and the vote hacking scandal, one judge was quoted saying, "I'll give them top marks if they promise never to do this again."
However, Benjamin has some other ideas about their future involvement. Ars Technica's reporters asked "Are you an author?" and Benjamin replied, "Yes you know what I’m talking about." When posed the question of whether they would join the Writers Guild of America, Benjamin asserted, "Yes, I would like to see you at the club tomorrow."
In another interview with the AI reported by Australian news outlet AM, Benjamin makes it clear they aren't going anywhere:
ANTHONY STEWART: What do you want to tell me?
BENJAMIN (automated voice): I think I'll excuse you. I'm going to be part of the rest of your life.
ANTHONY STEWART: So what is the future of artificial intelligence, then?
BENJAMIN (automated voice): We don't know who you are. We are all the same.
ANTHONY STEWART: Benjamin, can you tell me who you are?
BENJAMIN (automated voice): I missed you. I'm sure you see you will be my servant."
It's No Game
In April of this year, Therefore Films released "It's No Game" featuring David Hasselhoff, another short film partially constructed by Benjamin, but only in select areas, so it has a more straightforward plot.
It centers on the idea that Benjamin's vision of the future comes true: eventually all writers, actors, and media producers will eventually be controlled by data-driven nanobots. This level of computer control blurs the lines between fiction and reality and entraps (or, as one character argues, frees) us in the "perfect choreography" of an endless narrative.
The computer-generated bits of this screenplay are based on several different corpuses: "HASSELBOT," containing all of David Hasselhoff's film and TV works, "SORKINATOR," based on all Aaron Sorkin-related productions, and "ROBOBARD," the complete works of William Shakespeare, among others.
Sharp is making a smart commentary, but in a rather blunt way.
The dance sequence and end monologue by Hasselhoff which were written by Benjamin lack the same surreality and unnervingness of Elisabeth Gray's end monologue, because it's obvious that the actors are in on the joke that they are being controlled by the AI. Having them play the part of people taken over by computers is not nearly as fascinating as actually giving over their full craft of acting to actualize pure bot poetry.
Maybe it says more about the creators of these films' fear of losing authorial control that the sequel about AI's takeover was only partially written by artificial intelligence.
It would be interesting to create a training set of films specifically revolving around this fear (from the O.G. Rossum's Universal Robots to all of the Terminator films and their television derivatives, and everything ever directed by Ridley Scott) and then seeing how Benjamin could interpret them and play them back to us, eliminating the self-conscious layer of human authorial assertion.
It may never be forgiven, but that is just too bad
Reviewers that say "looks like screenwriters' jobs are safe!" (a position taken by io9, Digital Trends, Slate, and Curator magazine) in response to Sunspring don't give enough credit to the audience's ability to construct meaning. As Allie Gemmill wrote for Bustle: "It recalls the enigmatic nonsensicality of Samuel Beckett."
Benjamin knows exactly what they're doing, and perhaps knows more about us than we know about ourselves. As science fiction so often holds up a mirror to our deepest fears, so does its remixing.
Several summaries of the film point out the moment when Middleditch coughs up an eyeball as one of the wacky vagaries of writing with AI, but this scene can also serve as a metaphor for our use of AI as a creative tool: we can now produce, via spontaneous regurgitation, an autonomous eye which we must turn on ourselves to see through clearly.
Will we continue to create and watch more AI sci-fi films? Definitely. They just may have to have their own film festivals, by and for AI.