The New Rules of Robotics: AI as a Creative Partner

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Botnik: An Artistic AI That’s Challenging the Way We Think of Creativity, Originality, and Intelligence

If you can’t tell the difference between a real Game of Thrones quote and a bot pretending to be the one and only Mother of Dragons, you aren’t alone.   

As modern advances come closer and closer to taking the “artificial” out of artificial intelligence, we are watching the lines between artistic creativity and digital technology blur before our very eyes.  

I will ride a dragon even if you don’t want me to! I will drink screams like wine! — Daenerys Stormborn…kinda

In the case of the above quote from everyone’s favorite power-hungry dragon wrangler, the good people at Botnik created it along with an entire fictional episode of Game of Thrones using a bot and a bunch of real scripts.

How were they able to use a machine to generate something as charmingly maniacal as the real thing?

To figure that out, we’ll have to first explore exactly who and what Botnik is.

Who and What Is Botnik?

With a characteristic human-first focus one will come to recognize as they become familiar with the organization, Botnik calls itself “a community of writers, artists and developers using machines to create things on and off the internet.”

As described by Jamie Brew, Botnik CEO and former humor writer at The Onion, the core of their mission has always been to “find techniques from computer science that would be fun to write with, and build tools that implement them in the most fun way.”

Today, the “machines” and “tools” Botnik employs are smart, adaptive text apps.  

Upon reading one of their most popular pieces of work, a chapter from a “new book” in the Harry Potter series dubbed Harry Potter and The Portrait of What Looks Like a Large Pile Of Ash, it’s easy to recognize the confident yet completely nonsensical plot that stumbles along at the same halting pace we remember from The Terminator and other 80s ‘borgs and ‘bots.

They themselves call the content their community generates “… cyborg comedy, a true marriage of human and machine.”

Aside from the human mind, of course, the main tool the Botnik community uses to generate these feats of part-man, part-machine literature is their Predictive Writer app.

The app uses technology including a speech processing toolbox called VOICEBOX and a recurrent neural network (RNN) called char-rnn which can be trained to predict the next character based on the sequence of the previous characters.

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They looked at the door, screaming about how closed it was and asking it to be replaced with a small orb. The password was “BEEF WOMEN,” Hermione cried.

You know that predictive text feature where your smartphone tries to guess the next word in your text message? Think of that as the little brother to the AI we’re talking about.

Botnik’s Predictive Writer combines natural language modeling, which provides recommendations in context based on “natural” speech patterns, with machine learning that actually adapt to the user’s language to make unique and (somewhat) sensible recommendations.

To use a real-world example, think about the experience of watching a movie. As you start to learn the plot and understand each character’s role in it, you’ll feel informed enough to make a prediction about what may happen next.

Maybe you’ll predict it totally right. Maybe you’ll get it completely wrong. Maybe you’ll get just close enough to hear Hermione’s cries of “BEEF WOMEN.”

You, Too, Can Join the Botnik Generation

So what does all of this actually look like in practice—and does one need a computer science degree to create “cyborg comedy?”

Botnik’s Jonah Cooper handily describes the process of using smart predictions as “… collaborative writing, just with an algorithm instead of a person.”

The whole process starts by opening the Predictive Writer app and either using a keyboard from their ever-growing list or creating your own by uploading a text file.

Use your own work if you want the end product to emulate your voice, enter Hemingway’s work for some stripped-down prose, track down the first season of Friends to sprinkle in a taste of the mid 90s, or create a keyboard from all of the above for a seriously unique read.

The Predictive Writer will give you between 12 and 32 word choices based on the text you’ve uploaded, common word combinations it already knows, and the patterns it learns as you go.

Botnik’s descriptors often fall back on the part-man, part-machine concept of a cyborg. But after reading Cooper’s account of generating a script for a fictional Scrub’s episode, it’s clear this ‘borg takes a lot of human intervention right now to produce anything intelligible.

If one were to choose the predictive app’s top recommendations, the lines generated would be largely nonsensical. It takes logical selection followed by extensive editing to arrange the app’s suggestions into something you and your robotic writing partner would be proud to share.

Not unlike the beatniks after which they were surely named, the Botnik community welcomes people of all backgrounds and levels of technical prowess to use their predictive text keyboards to create a variety of content.

And what a variety it is. A Valentine’s Day recipe tutorial, a pilot for a TV show base on David Lynch scripts, a parody of Donald Trump’s Twitter account, a faux Seinfeld episode, jokes derived from existing comedy specials, and even a brand-sponsored fairytale built from Brothers Grimm classics—all kinds of creatives are finding all kinds of ways to use Botnik’s tools.

Is Artificial Intelligence the Medium, the Artist, or the Art Itself?

When it comes to Botnik we have to ask, as many artists and patrons of the arts must, what’s the point?

Writers could use the smart predictive text tool to get an unbiased look at their own work—signature phrases they aren’t aware they’re repeating, turns of phrase they want to avoid, common themes in their work, etc.

Writers could use the smart predictive text tool to get an unbiased look at their own work—signature phrases they aren’t aware they’re repeating, turns of phrase they want to avoid, common themes in their work, etc.

Others could take advantage of predictive text to generate new, creative ideas and styles unique from their typical thinking patterns. With the right keyboard, you could become a poet in an instant or try your hand at the sci-fi writing that never seemed to click before.

From a technological standpoint, exposing a neural network to thousands of participants who are willing to basically train it for free could have massive benefits for teams building AI-enabled capabilities. In fact, the Botnik team has already collaborated with Amazon’s smart assistant system, Alexa.

 
But beyond its use for writers and applications in the tech world, we have to wonder what it is that draws so many people to the Botnik community to create and share just for the sake of it?

Art has historically been created by humans for the enjoyment of other humans. How does artificial intelligence fit into this equation?

Is Botnik, and AI as a whole, just the newest medium on which to create? Is it meant to add a revolutionary tool to the artist’s kit the way synthetic paint colors and the typewriter did? Is the creation, training, and eventual mastery over bots art in itself?

Botnik’s CEO doesn’t have all the answers, either—saying about the Botnik community that “The machines are their equipment, or maybe they’re the medium.”

Right now, it seems the best answer for welcoming Botnik and AI into the creative realm is the same answer artists have been using to explain “why” for centuries: Because we can, because it’s exciting and new, and because we want to see where it takes us.

Or maybe it all boils down to Brew’s original intent behind starting the Botnik community in 2016: Taking techniques from computer science to make the art of writing more fun.

Creativity of the Future: Botnik, Artificial Intelligence, and Originality

How would you feel if someone took the content you agonized over publishing, ran it through a digital tool to create a silly new arrangement of your words, and called it their own?

In a digital community where creative work is more visible, more shareable, and, yes, more poachable than ever before; Botnik may just be the latest manifestation of the inclination that great artists have and should steal ideas from each other.

Will there be a time when predictive text tools like those used at Botnik become so well trained that human readers won’t be able to tell if what they’re reading was written by man or machine?

Why does that matter?

Well, extrapolate that thought process a step further. How about when AI inevitably becomes intelligent, and sentient, enough to create original content of its own? Who will own it? How will we define creativity, originality, and even intelligence itself in this new reality?

And AI will find its way into creative fields the same way it has into so many other industries. The only questions are when and at what saturation.

According to Business Insider, researchers at Oxford and Yale Universities think AI could automate all human tasks by 2051 and all human jobs by 2136.

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As technology marches on, machines will learn to become more like us—by our own design.

Some say this gives them the right to own what they create. Others argue that a machine couldn’t possibly own anything. Its intellect stems from algorithms created by humans so therefore the rights to any intellectual property it creates belong to those humans.

Once creativity, original thought, and even intelligence can be executed with machine precision, what will keep us, the second-rate humans, from even bothering?

Botnik lives smack in the middle of the intersection of art and technology and on the cusp of a whole lot of interesting questions about how humans and machines will continue to coexist.

Perhaps the only thing we can say with certainty today is that as a society our social contract will have to be amended.

When Isaac Asimov wrote his Three Laws of Robotics, his biggest concern was keeping humans safe from physical harm. Now, our biggest concern may very well be the safety of creativity, originality, and intelligence as we know it.