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Of robots
and men

Botwriter: a new career for Hollywood wordsmiths

With their metallic voices, rubbish jokes and complete lack of repartee, robots might seem forever condemned to glum, ponderous servitude. Which is precisely why leading Artificial Intelligence R&D departments are recruiting screenwriters and poets: to inject some soul into the machine, strengthen their bonds with human beings—in a word, to make robots more human.

Our robots got talent (but no feeling)

Robots are getting increasingly sophisticated. In Japan, an AI almost won a literary prize for its first novel. Given just a plot outline and some character information, the robot drafted the entire novel itself. What happened next? The book was shortlisted for the prestigious Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award. Not bad for a first effort!

On the other side of the world, filmmaker Chris Wilson collaborated with the Cleverbot AI to create dialogue and several scenes for his short film, Do you love me. The AI is even credited as co-screenwriter.

Alas, though an AI may stir emotions in human beings, it remains devoid of feelings; the Japanese robot did not register disappointment when it was passed over for the award, and Cleverbot could care less about its film’s poor critical reception. Robots are incapable of irony—they can only mimic feeling

The beat that my processor skipped

This could all change—or rather has to change, because humans need emotional connection. If AI-to-human interactions are to gain traction, we will need to develop AI sensitivity, somehow.

In the meantime, a new job is up for grabs in Silicon Valley: robot poetry coach. Engineers are recruiting gifted authors and Hollywood screenwriters with sharp wits and a soft heart to make interactive conversational programs, known as bots, more human.

They have the difficult job of teaching tact to Microsoft’s Cortana and humor to Apple’s Siri. One challenge they face is that the human user speaking into the microphone has high standards: the AI must have personality, and be trained to say the right thing at the right moment. Another is that learning-by-doing isn’t an option for bots. At least, that is what Microsoft’s experience would indicate: when their research chatbot Tay went online to engage internet users in conversation, it quickly became an obnoxious vessel for conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial.

The digital school of life

What do bots learn at digital school? Things like matching the right attitude with a given request: knowing to avoid jokes with a user searching for funeral information, or to banter with another who is organizing a party. Who is better qualified than a hit screenwriter for this?

The results are conversational programs that help bots adapt their language depending on the context and their conversation partner—i.e. to differentiate between children and adults. In a nutshell: artificial tact. Cultural references are another must-have; in Brazil, for example, Cortana has become an expert in telenovelas, the wildly popular TV dramas that draw millions of daily viewers. As for the US, bots have had to learn the intricacies of knock-knock jokes.

Future bots will be understanding, friendly, empathetic and speak with a human voice.

To complete the illusion, researchers are concentrating on making synthetic voices sound more natural than your typical GPS and its broken speech patterns. DeepMind is currently developing an AI for Google that will analyze the full spectrum of human voice in order to generate its own smooth intonations, and make the relationship feel even more “human.”

Falling in love with a RAM

Future bots will be understanding, friendly, empathetic and speak with a human voice. Children will easily adopt them as genuine buddies, as will adults who lack human interaction. Will it become possible to fall in love with a machine? Not only is this the plot of the film Her (in which the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls madly in love with Samantha, his computer's OS), science indicates it will definitely happen: a German study has revealed, using brain MRI, that humans feel the same empathy for robots as they do for their own kind.

If the best authors, like fairy godmothers, endow their fledgling bots with a wit worthy of Oscar Wilde and a depth of insight to match Shakespeare's, who could resist their charms? Someone should pitch that script to Hollywood…

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