Meet the next bestselling authors: computers

ROSE POWELL
Last updated 15:34 01/08/2014
Game of Thrones

COULD A COMPUTER DREAMED HER UP? Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), from George RR Martin's hit book series and TV show Game of Thrones.

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Computers are a step closer to becoming the next Stephen King, JK Rowling or George RR Martin thanks to a new artificial intelligence software that writes its own fables.

Researchers at the University of NSW have developed a computer system that generates simple stories constructed on a psychological model.

Perhaps it was inevitable that our use of technology would eventually into one of the most fundamental areas of human behaviours: story telling.

All humans need to do is select from one of 22 available storylines wired around an emotional core, such as retribution.

The computer then plots out the emotions the characters need to experience and constructs events to match each plot point.

The new system is the brainchild of passionate reader and computer science PhD student Margaret Sarlej.

"Computer generated storytelling is in its very early stages, and we're a long way from a computer becoming the next Tim Winton, but this is a step forward," Sarlej said.

Sarlej created the fundamental storytelling engine of the system by encoding the 22 available fable types with the series and structure of emotions characters need to experience to convey that moral message.

 The system is only focused on the emotions the characters experience, however, rather than taking the reader on an emotional journey.

But this second area is a distinct and almost completely separate area of computer studies: the automatic creation of natural and evocative language.

"For a computer to rival any human story teller, you'd need to combine to combine state of the art technology from both systems. Both areas are very challenging so that won't be happening for a while," Ms Sarlej said.

Multi-awardwinning author and creative writing tutor Margo Lanagan said the software could be a useful tool for developing narrative plot lines, which she describes as both the skeleton and engine for most stories.

"It's a very important corner for stories. But there are elements that are just as important, if not more so than plot," Lanagan said. 

Even if technology could  eventually connect clear plots with evocative language, Lanagan says it still would not necessarily create compelling stories.

"Good storytelling is more about exploring characters and scenes in different ways," Lanagan said. "Stories come from deep within, from an initial impulse within the author that is almost unspeakable. It's not inaccessible with tools like this, but it has to be there to transform the plot into something that can be felt."

Despite her passion for combining artificial intelligence systems with stories, even Sarlej is not sure computers as humanity's chief storytellers is a wise idea.

"You wouldn't necessarily want it to happen completely, there are aspects of story telling you wouldn't want to replicate automatically, that's the joy of reading."

Computer-generated narratives could form the a more dynamic and scaleable skeleton for digital storytelling, such as more elaborate and sprawling 'choose your own adventure' style stories for school student of all ages, or even branching narratives in computer and video games.

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Sarlej's supervisor, Australian Research Council Fellow Dr Malcolm Ryan, said it was a serious literary project for the university.

He believes artificial intelligence will make an increasingly meaningful contribution to literature in the coming years.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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