This past spring the streets of Seoul, where I live, felt more like a sci-fi movie than usual. Large overhead video screens kept the population posted on the progress of a series of Go matches between 18-time world champion Lee Sedol and AlphaGo, a piece of artificial intelligence developed by Google DeepMind. Computers have long had a special difficulty mastering that traditional game, but before long it became clear that this computer would win most of the matches, despite the human's formerly unshakable prediction of the opposite outcome. What would artificial intelligence achieve next?
"In the wake of Google's AI Go victory, filmmaker Oscar Sharp turned to his technologist collaborator Ross Goodwin to build a machine that could write screenplays," say the video notes for the new short film Sunspring. They assembled hundreds of science fiction scripts, mostly from 1980s and 90s television shows and movies, and fed them into the artificial intelligence, which eventually named itself Benjamin, so as to teach it the mechanics of screenwriting. "Building a team including Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO's Silicon Valley, they gave themselves 48 hours to shoot and edit whatever Benjamin decided to write." Benjamin decided to write eight minutes' worth of its own interpretation of the tropes of a certain kind of sci-fi entertainment.
It did come up with, fair to say, some dialogue a human screenwriter could only dream of — that is to say, words with the kind of unconscious logic that, delivered by living, breathing actors in physical spaces, take on weight, humor, and even an askew kind of meaning. (Middleditch's despondent "I am not a bright light" will surely stay quotable for years to come.) You can learn more about the making of Sunspring from this Ars Technica piece by Annalee Newitz. Benjamin won't put any sci-fi scribes out of work just yet, haunting though it may seem for a program to have come so close to doing something classically human as telling a story about the future. But remember, people had to write that program, just as people had to create AlphaGo; every achievement of artificial intelligence thus also counts as an achievement of humanity.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.