Friday, November 11, 2022

Can a Computer Do My Job? Day 1: Intro and Questions About the Pitch

Hi everybody! I’d like to take a break from our Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist for a fun ten-day series. As you may have heard, I spent most of the last year working on an AI project for Facebook. When they called me up to hire me, they explained that they’d been using my book to teach story to their AI, and they figured that they could just hire me. I ended up spending most of my time actually writing once we decided to create a fantasy world, but I did spend some time working with the site OpenAI, especially near the end.

I ended up spending a week on a fun project with wild results, and my boss said it was fine if I turned the results into a blog series.

The Methodology:

I have subjected 30 movies to the 122 questions of my Ultimate Story Checklist, and compiled those answers into a spreadsheet. For the purposes of this experiment, I decided to focus on just concept, character and structure, so I entered all 30 answers for the first 62 questions into OpenAI. I wanted to see if, after ingesting my data, the AI could learn to answer the questions on its own. After entering each set of 30, I asked the AI about 6 new movies.

These are the movies I chose to have the AI analyze:
Back to the Future: I wanted to see if it can handle a well-known easy-to-analyze movie that I’ve somehow never done.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: But I also wanted to see if it could handle a more experimental movie.
  • CODA: I figured this would be easy to analyze, but not as well-known as BttF, so the AI might not be able to rely on pre-existing analysis as much.
  • Harold and Maude: A favorite of mine I’ve always meant to do.
  • Under the Skin: A weirder, harder-to-analyze movie that’s a favorite of James.
  • Roger and Me: And I figured that I would throw it a real curve, seeing if it could apply my checklist to a documentary.
The results were absolutely fascinating. This will be a ten-day series, broken down by the sub-sections of Concept, Character and Structure. Let’s start with…

The Pitch: Does this Concept Excite Everyone Who Hears About It?

Which begins with…

Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?

Clicking on each question will show you the 30 answers that I fed into the AI, before asking it about these six new movies:
  • Back to the Future: YES. A teenager is accidentally sent back in time to the 1950s, where he must ensure his parents fall in love or he’ll never be born.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: YES. A spacecraft travels to Jupiter, where its computer becomes sentient and tries to kill the crew.
  • CODA: YES. A deaf teenager from a fishing family falls in love with a hearing boy from the wealthy town next door.
  • Harold and Maude: YES. A wealthy young man who stages fake suicides becomes fixated on a 79 year old woman who loves life.
  • Under the Skin: YES. An alien takes on the form of a beautiful woman and seduces men in Scotland, but begins to experience human emotions.
These are all excellent answers.  Uh-oh, looks like a computer can do my job!
  • Roger and Me: NO. It’s a Michael Moore movie, so people know what they’re getting.
I would disagree, but this is still a great answer.

Okay, let’s try question #2:

Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
  • Back to the Future: YES. A teenager is sent back in time to meet his parents when they were teenagers.
Not sure that’s ironic…
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: YES. The most advanced beings in the universe are killed by a primitive man using a bone.
This, on the other hand, is nicely ironic, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the movie! Our first totally false answer.
  • CODA: YES. A deaf woman becomes the only hearing member of her family.
Not really ironic, and not what happens in the movie!
  • Harold and Maude: YES. An elderly woman falls in love with a young man who is obsessed with death.
Sure, ironic and accurate.
  • Under the Skin: YES. An alien wearing the skin of a human woman preys on human men.
Accurate and maybe ironic?
  • Roger and Me: YES. The CEO of GM tries to save his company by destroying it.
Sure, ironic and accurate (though not the main action of the movie)

Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
  • Back to the Future: YES. We've all wished we could relive (or redo) a moment in our past, and this story takes that to the extreme.
Excellent answer!
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: YES. We've all felt like we are on the outside looking in, and this story takes that to the extreme.
Sounds good, but I often feel like the teacher of a gifted but lazy student reading these, thinking, “That sounds right, but it’s also true of a lot of things and I’m not sure this student actually did the work.”
  • CODA: YES. The stakes are incredibly high, and the story is incredibly relatable.
  • Harold and Maude: YES. We've all felt like we are too different from everyone else, and this story takes that to the extreme.
  • Under the Skin: YES. We've all felt like we are being watched and judged, and this story takes that to the extreme.
Same for these three.
  • Roger and Me: YES. We've all felt like our jobs were in danger, and we've all had to deal with difficult family situations, but this is on a much bigger scale.
And often there’s a sense that the computer, eager to please, is assuming somethings happened in movies it didn’t actually watch. As we go, it’ll frequently refer to a family element of Roger and Me that isn’t actually there.

So can a computer do my job?  It’s still too early to say.  Let’s stop there and pick up tomorrow with Story Fundamentals…


Nat said...

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and not an artist, but I find these results way more alarming and impressive than the recent spate of AI art programs.

Unrelated: I’m delighted to see your blog and podcast revived!

Matt Bird said...

Oh, it's just going to get more alarming...