Dancing Robots at LG Electronics exhibit at SXSW

By SUSAN LAHEY, Senior Writer with Silicon Hills News

“People aren’t interested in push-button art. It’s much more interesting to watch people struggle and find something to say,” said Douglas Eck, Sr Staff Research Scientist at the Google Brain team and a self-identified “failed musician.” The SXSW panel was on AI and the Future of Storytelling.

Panelists Eck, Charles Melcher, founder and director of Future of StoryTelling (FoST), Heather Smith of StoryFile, and writer/director/producer Lance Weiler, founding director of the Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab, discussed the role of AI in the arts and whether human creativity was doomed.

Short answer: no.

In fact, there is a new term for art that replicates art produced by machine learning. It’s GANism. Art imitiates machines imitating art?

AI as framework

All of the participants talked about AI as “tool” for creating art—such as tossing out the bones of a story for a writer to base a poem or novel on. But they point out that AI is still very much in it’s infancy. Weiler directed an installation called Frankenstien.ai in which AI has conversations with people about what it means to be human. It even can be used at dinner parties where the participants each have earpieces for the AI to tell them what to say to their neighbor or to ask, or whether to whisper in someone’s ear. Diners don’t know whether conversations are the fruit of their fellow diners’ personalities or Frankenstein. Though sometimes it’s clear, like when Frankenstein, who is just learning about being human, asks questions like “Why do people like having sex even though they can see in color?”

While AI can absorb all the information in the world and generate stories, music and the rest, it isn’t yet capable of discriminating between the good and the bad, the truly human experience and the familiar jumble of words. On the other hand, AI can be used to tell the stories or provide a framework for the music others won’t bother with. As Melcher pointed out, AI would be able to write the story of a Little League game that a professional journalist would never cover.

AI as recording device

Smith’s organization was founded because fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are around to tell their stories—especially to children. The most impactful encounters between survivors and audiences, she said, came during the question and answer period. She asked for the house lights in Ballroom D—the Convention Center’s largest venue that seats 2,408 people—to be brought up and a show of hands for how many people had lost someone. Many raised their hands. Then she asked how many people would want to have a conversation with that person. Fewer raised their hands, but there was still a large showing.

StoryFile interviews people in-depth for one to five days and creates personalized “conversations” that you can have on a smart phone or as a hologram in a museum display among other places. Rather than just playing with a cool technology, Smith said, she was interested in helping people—from those who benefit from learning about the Holocaust to others who simply want a way to reconnect with loved ones they’ve lost. Asked by an audience member if something like StoryFile interrupted the grieving process, Smith answered “As I shift in my chair….I don’t know.”

Panelists acknowledged the danger of AI preventing some people from really adventurous creativity. As Eck said, the electric guitar did. But he thinks that’s okay. You don’t really need to invent new genres all the time.