AI in storytelling: Machines as cocreators

Sunspring debuted at the SCI-FI LONDON film festival in 2016. Set in a dystopian world with mass unemployment, the movie attracted many fans, with one viewer describing it as amusing but strange. But the most notable aspect of the film involves its creation: an artificial-intelligence (AI) bot wrote Sunspring’s screenplay.

“Wow,” you think. “Maybe machines will replace human storytellers, just like self-driving cars could take over the roads.” A closer look at Sunspring might raise some doubts, however. One character in the film inexplicably coughs up an eyeball, and a critic noted that the dialogue often sounds like “a random series of unrelated sentences.” Until the technology advances, we still need rumpled screenwriters bent over keyboards. So let’s envision a less extreme scenario: could machines work alongside humans to improve the storytelling process?

Imagine how this collaboration might unfold in the rich medium of video. As always, human storytellers would create a screenplay with clever plot twists and realistic dialogue. AI would enhance their work by providing insights that increase a story’s emotional pull—for instance, identifying a musical score or visual image that helps engender feelings of hope. This breakthrough technology would supercharge storytellers, helping them thrive in a world of seemingly infinite audience demand.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab recently investigated the potential for such machine–human collaboration in video storytelling. Was it possible, our team asked, that machines could identify common emotional arcs in video stories—the typical swings of fortune that have characters struggling through difficult times, triumphing over hardship, falling from grace, or declaring victory over evil? If so, could storytellers use this information to predict how audiences might respond? These questions have resonance for anyone involved in video storytelling, from amateurs posting on YouTube to studio executives.

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