Creative AI, part 3: Stories

How do you teach a computer to write a story? At first, the task seems impossible – to understand everything about the world that could be represented in a story, the computer would have to know as much as you or me. However, several research groups are up to the challenge.

Early groups worked by creating story templates that could be selected between, modified slightly, or filled in with words or concepts from a list. (You or I can also do this sort of thing, if we have a free afternoon, with some simple string manipulation functions. It’s not hard, and is a lot like a very carefully crafted Mad Lib.) However, the more interesting task in computational creativity is to make a system that can understand the characters involved in a story, figure out what they would do, and fit that into a storylike structure without a predefined instruction about how the story should go.

Systems that write stories – TALESPIN, MINSTREL, and MEXICA among them – typically take a single topic, like talking animals or Aztec warriors, and are programmed with a large knowledge base about objects, social reasoning, the actions that can be taken by an agent in this setting, etc.

Unfortunately (based on my not very thorough current searching) it’s much easier to find computer scientists talking about the details of these systems and exactly what knowledge they encode (details which are probably beyond the scope of these posts) than to find examples of the stories they make. The programs that exist today are quite interesting, able to calculate relatively advanced concepts like why people take specific actions, what basic actions are available or unavailable to a specific person, and what might be the consequence of that action. But the examples I can find are all a bit disappointing in a specific way:

The jaguar knight went hunting with the tlatoani. The fisherman hated the tlatoani. The fisherman attacked the tlatoani. The tlatoani attacked the fisherman. The jaguar knight made prisoner the fisherman. (from MEXICA by Iván Román and Rafael Pérez y Pérez)

It seems that, while current computers can represent a logical sequence of events for a story, describing the story in evocative, interesting, emotionally deep, or immersive ways is still a long way off.

This is no problem for certain applications, though. The storytelling advances made by these programs are useful for certain commercial applications in sports, finance, or elsewhere. Programs analyzing data in these fields can automatically generate stories based on their data, which make the most pertinent points easily comprehensible to humans:

Store 9, your sales of Item 6 are far below the other stores in your region. If you are able to up your sales of this product by only 5 units a day, you will be able to increase your profits next month by $1,123. The sales of this product for other stores in your region seem to indicate that this is completely achievable. (example from Narrative Science‘s website)

Computer programs can also automatically generate usable news stories about sports, finance, and other formulaic topics. Not exciting, perhaps; but also not terrible for a practice that grew out of Mad Libs.

Creative AI, part 2: Music

Although I love music and have some musical training, computer-generated music is very much NOT my area of research, so this will be brief. Don’t confused “brief” with a lack of material, though; computer music researchers are doing AWESOME things.

One very well-established computer musician is named Emmy. Programmed by David Cope (and short for Experiments in Musical Intelligence), Emmy can analyze music by humans and then generate new music designed to sound similar. Continue reading “Creative AI, part 2: Music”

Autism News, 2015/10/06

Everyone’s still talking about NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. Here are some more reviews:

A woman named Anna Stubblefield was convicted of raping a nonspeaking disabled man in the UK. Although the man in question is capable of communicating using AAC, his testimony was not used in the trial. If you can deal with the triggers that are inherent in this topic, there is some worthwhile analysis of the case

Meanwhile, science!

The U.S. Department of Education criticized overreliance on ABA in developing education plans for autistic students

Donald Trump attributed autism to the use of vaccines in a US presidential primary debate.

There was some drama at Autcom, a conference for autistic people, because of Autcom’s failure to meet or take seriously people’s access needs, including needs that they’d promised to take seriously in previous years. If you want to read about the drama, here are some good posts:


Creative AI, part 1: Visual Arts

I don’t often mention my graduate research on my writing blog. I use different names for each pursuit, and I like to keep them a little bit separate! But lately I’ve been questioning that approach, and when I told the folks at Can*Con about my research, they asked if I’d want to do a presentation or panel about it. I said yes. But I don’t know what in my field is most interesting to the average SFF fan, and nobody wants a presentation by an obsessed grad student who drones on and on about little technical details! So I’m going to do a blog series as a dry-run, giving very introductory information to see what people’s reactions are.

And what is my graduate research, you ask? My graduate research is how to make computers creative. I’m interested in making AI that can write, draw, or sing the way people do.

A lot of people don’t know much about this field, even at my own university. I’m going to do a series in 8 parts to tell you what kind of writing, drawing, singing etc our computers can already do right now.

Since we tend to think of visual art first when we hear the word “art”, I’ll start with visual art. Are you ready?
Continue reading “Creative AI, part 1: Visual Arts”

Autism News, 2015/09/06

This autistic linkspam episode has some links that should have gone in the last one except I forgot to check my feed reader again before posting. 😛 I blame the post-LARP brain that I had that day. Anyway, here are more links.

  • Last news post I linked to a petition about Sharon Joy Kochmeister. Here’s Evil Autie explaining some complications to that case that I didn’t know about [TW abuse]
  • Also here’s a follow-up to Dani and Emma’s post about imposing behaviourism on oneself [TW more abuse]

Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of buzz about a book called NeuroTribes. It’s by an NT author who has extensively researched the history of autistic community and activism.


August updates

I’m back at home, piecing together the next steps for my academic work before the new school year starts, and being way way too obsessive about my LARP. It’s also been way too long since I had any writing news for you. BUT!

After the longest dry spell evar, I’ve suddenly made two new poem sales. YAY! (Seriously, according to the Grinder I think I went over 6 months without a non-reprint acceptance. Of course, it’s because I had hardly anything out on submission. Still.)

Both of them are critter poems, and both went to poetry markets I adore. One (the one with the octopi) will be in Strange Horizons. The other (the Hallucigenia sparsa one) will be in an upcoming issue of Liminality.

For those of you who like Twitter, I put together a Twitter list of autistic SFF authors.

Finally, the Invisible anthology – put together by Jim C. Hines, and containing an essay by me (in addition to many other wonderful diverse people) – appeared on the Hugo longlist for Best Related Work. This is quite splendid, and I’m glad the anthology got as much attention as it did. Jim posted saying all the Invisible authors should go do something nice for ourselves, so I bought myself something from iTunes. ^_^

I’m not in it, but if you liked Invisible, you might also consider reading Invisible 2.

Autism News, 2015/08/24

To start with:

Dating and sex:

Pan-disability posts:


Sad Things:

  • Kerima Cevik on how we respond inappropriately to hate crimes against autistic people [TW, um, descriptions of hate crimes?]
  • Sharisa Kochmeister, an autism activist and non-speaking person, was recently put into a nursing home against her will and denied access to the devices that allow her to communicate. Here is a petition to free her
  • Jim Jacobson on his inner autistic child [TW for… I actually don’t know? like I don’t know how to tell if this is literally about Dissociative Identity Disorder or if it is a metaphor? But either way, it’s difficult and important?]

Imaginarium 4

I’m late announcing this – I’ve been at a conference – but the Imaginarium: the Best Canadian Speculative Writing series is one I always watch with great interest every year. Once, in 2012, I got in with my story “Centipede Girl”. Since then I’ve had honourable mentions – two or three a year – but no bites.

Except now I am pleased to announce that Imaginarium 4 will feature not one, not two, but THREE of my poems from 2014. (“Self-Portrait as Bilbo Baggins“, “The Parable of the Supervillain”, and “The Mermaid at Sea World”.)

About that conference. I’m still at it. I presented an academic paper this morning – the second this year to have my real name attached as first author – and my supervisors say that once I remembered to slow down my speech to the rate of a normal Earthling, it went perfectly. I am now on a break between the parts of the conference that interest me, sitting at a small green desk in a high, garrety hotel room, typing on my computer, watching the rain and lightning outside and playing opera. It’s this odd mix of cosiness and spookiness which feels peculiarly writerly to me.

Getting my writing life back together, after the awful summer last year, is still a work in progress, which is why I’ve been quiet; but it’s coming along. On a day like today, I can’t help but feel encouraged.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 19: Ascension

The Book: “Ascension” by Jacqueline Koyanagi.

The Plot: A ship engineer stows away hoping to become part of a ship’s crew and is quickly caught up in bigger difficulties than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): The author! (As evidenced by, for example, her work for Disability in Kidlit during Autism Month.)

This is the second time I’ve reviewed a book by an autistic author that didn’t have any autistic characters in it. (The first was The Meeting of the Waters by Caiseal Mór). I honestly find these books pretty hard to review. It means I have to break my usual rule of talking only about the representation of autistic characters. How do I do that without being harder somehow on these books (or, conversely, easier) than I am on the others? I don’t know. It’s a work in progress. Bear with me.

I will admit I found “Ascension” rather difficult to get into at first. I bounced off the writing style – especially the way Koyanagi describes strong emotions, which I found telly and clunky. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because once the protagonist gets on to the ship, there is a lot of shiny. A pilot who fades in and out of existence, an engineer who’s really a wolf, a planet of transhuman surgically modified partygoers, mysterious villains who will blow up planets to get their hands on the protagonist’s sister… Once you get into it, there is plenty here to keep a reader entertained.

There’s also plenty here for those readers who get excited by diverse and complex casts of characters (and, yes, that includes me). The crew, as well as the characters we meet elsewhere, are a diverse and boisterous bunch including many characters of colour, tough and sharply-drawn female characters, queer and polyamorous relationships, even an otherkin character (the aforementioned wolf).

In particular, Koyanagi does a good job of depicting characters with physical disabilities, including the protagonist’s own chronic illness. Alana lives with Mel’s Disorder, a fictional degenerative illness causing pain, tremors, and (if untreated) eventual death. Her disability doesn’t define her, but it does realistically inform the way she looks at the world and the type of difficulties she encounters while trying to stow away and become a ship’s engineer. Being a poor, working-class character, Alana also encounters plenty of conflict simply trying to obtain the medicine that will keep her alive.

Alana’s sister, Nova, is able-bodied and well-off, working as a glamorous “spirit guide”. The conflict between Alana and Nova, which initially comes off as shallow, becomes much more complex and interesting when their attitudes towards their bodies come into play. Alana fights to inhabit her body and to live her life to the fullest despite pain; Nova has a horror of anything merely physical and uses anorexia to try to escape her otherwise-healthy body. While this conflict isn’t explored quite as fully as I would have liked, it is explored and the book’s eventual resolution reconciles the sisters in a perhaps surprising way.

It’s not a perfect book. The writing IS telly. But I think a lot of my readers are going to really enjoy what Koyanagi is doing here. In particular, if you are hungry for better depictions of characters with disabilities in general – real, breathing, complicated disabilities – you’re going to eat this right up. Koyanagi is providing something people need, and I have no doubt she will continue to do so in the future.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autism News, 2015/06/25

June 18 was Autistic Pride Day. Nobody ever tells me these things until it’s the actual day. Here is an Autistic Pride Day message from Ari Ne’eman and ASAN!

Lately Dani Alexis Ryskamp has been making all sorts of really excellent posts so I’m just going to lump them all together awkwardly into one part of the list.

Here are some long but really interesting academic type posts:

Some potentially sad/upsetting social issues posts: