Scientists develop real-life ‘What-If Machine’ to produce AI-created fiction

In yet another example of how Futurama’s year 3000 is coming faster than we might think, scientists have created a What-If Machine (WHIM), one of the first pieces of software to use artificial intelligence to write fiction.

Although not capable of the full visual renderings its fictional counterpart achieved in Futurama’s Anthology of Interest episodes, the machine can take ‘true’ facts from the web and twist them to create ‘what-if’ scenarios.

However, while the Futurama machine is used by members of the Planet Express crew to determine what would happen if they undertook certain personal actions or changes, the real-life version produces general ‘what-if’ scenarios and, in some cases, their likely results, with humans able to rate them for their narrative potential.

The intention is to expand these into full works of fiction, eventually using these for movie and video game storylines.

Image and featured image: screenshots from Futurama S2 E20: Anthology of Interest I.

Not quite at the level of the fictional What-If machine just yet. Image and featured image: screenshots from Futurama S2 E20: Anthology of Interest I.

“WHIM is an antidote to mainstream artificial intelligence which is obsessed with reality,” said Simon Colton, project coordinator and professor in computational creativity at Goldsmiths College, University of London. ‘

“We’re among the first to apply artificial intelligence to fiction.”

At present WHIM generates short ‘what-ifs’ under five fictional categories: Kafkaesque, alternative scenarios, utopian and dystopian, metaphors and Disney.

Some of the results are more bizarre than compelling, such as this gem from the alternative scenarios section:

“What if there was an old refrigerator who couldn’t find a house that was solid? But instead, she found a special style of statue that was so aqueous that the old refrigerator didn’t want the solid house anymore.”

And there are also those that show that mining historical data from the web doesn’t always result in fictional premises with mass appeal, such as this snoozefest from the utopian and dystopian section:

“What if the world suddenly had lots more queens? Then there would be more serfs, since queens establish the monarchies that contain serfs.”

However, there are some with the potential to become genuinely good works of fiction.

“What if revered artists were to be abandoned by their muses, develop rivalries and become hated rivals?” from the metaphors section could be the basis for quite a good comedy movie, and “What if there was a little atom who lost his neutral charge?” from the Disney section sounds rather like the premise of a Pixar film.

The real-life What-If machine, which can be accessed here.

The real-life What-If machine, which can be accessed here.

Over time, the WHIM is expected to develop the ability to not only write premises, but judge how good they are.

This will be achieved using a machine-learning system, which will learn about what makes good fiction and what doesn’t from the ratings people give different ideas.

The result should be that WHIM will gain the ability to judge if something has potential for mass consumption, flying in the face of the convention that creativity cannot be achieved with a scientific approach.

“One may argue that fiction is subjective, but there are patterns,” said Colton.

“If 99% of people think a comedian is funny, then we could say that comedian is funny, at least in the perception of most people.”

The European Union-funded project is very much in its infancy, but there are research teams around Europe working to make it a genuine creator of fiction for use in movies and video games.

At the University of Cambridge, UK, researchers are working to improve the web-mining system so the WHIM comes up with better ideas, while over at the University College in Dublin, Ireland, researchers are working to produce better irony and metaphorical insights.

Perhaps most importantly, at the Universidad Complutense Madrid, in Spain, researchers are working to expand the short premises into full narratives, which could be used for film plots and other forms of fiction.

WHIM’s creators even believe it could be used by scientists explore potential scenarios by asking ‘what-if’ questions, perhaps even making it a realistic AI ringer for Professor Farnsworth’s solid gold creation.

Researchers discover remains of “Triassic Jaws” who dominated the seas after Earth’s most severe mass extinction event

Researchers have discovered the fossil remains of an unknown large predatory fish called Birgeria: an approximately 1.8-meter-long primitive bony fish with long jaws and sharp teeth that swallowed its prey whole.

Swiss and US researchers led by the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich say the Birgeria dominated the sea that once covered present-day Nevada one million years after the mass extinction.

Its period of dominance began following “the most catastrophic mass extinction on Earth”, which took place about 252 million years ago – at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods.

Image courtesy of UZH. Featured image courtesy of Nadine Bösch

Up to 90% of the marine species of that time were annihilated, and before the discovery of the Birgeria, palaeontologists had assumed that the first predators at the top of the food chain did not appear until the Middle Triassic epoch about 247 to 235 million years ago.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time period ever discovered in the United States,” emphasises Carlo Romano, lead author of the study.

Although, species of Birgeria existed worldwide. The most recent discovery belongs to a previously unknown species called Birgeria Americana, and is the earliest example of a large-sized Birgeria species, about one and a half times longer than geologically older relatives.

The researchers say the discovery of Birgeria is proof that food chains recovered quicker than previously thought from Earth’s most devastating mass extinction event.

According to earlier studies, marine food chains were shortened after the mass extinction event and recovered only slowly and stepwise.

However, finds such as the newly discovered Birgeria species and the fossils of other vertebrates now show that so-called apex predators (animals at the very top of the food chain) already lived early after the mass extinction.

“The vertebrates from Nevada show that previous interpretations of past biotic crises and associated global changes were too simplistic,” said Romano.

Revolutionary DNA sunscreen gives better protection the longer its worn

Researchers have developed a ground-breaking sunscreen made of DNA that offers significant improvements over conventional versions.

Unlike current sunscreens, which need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective, the DNA sunscreen improves over time, offering greater protection the longer it is exposed to the sun.

In addition, it also keeps the skin hydrated, meaning it could also be beneficial as a treatment for wounds in extreme or adverse environments.

Developed by researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, the innovative sunscreen could prove essential as temperatures climb and many are increasingly at risk of conditions caused by excessive UV exposure, such as skin cancer.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” said Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University.

“We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

The DNA sunscreen has the potential to become a standard, significantly improving the safety of spending time in the sun

The research, which is published today in the journal Scientific Reports, involved the development of thin crystalline DNA films.

These films are transparent in appearance, but able to absorb UV light; when the researchers exposed the film to UV light, they found that its absorption rate improved, meaning the more UV is was exposed to, the more it absorbed.

“If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen,” said German.

The film will no doubt attract the attention of sunscreen manufacturers, who will likely be keen to commercialise such a promising product. However, the researchers have not said if there is any interest as yet, and if there is any clear timeline to it becoming a commercial product.

 

The film’s properties are not just limited to sun protection, however. The DNA film can also store water at a far greater rate than conventional skin, limiting water evaporation and increasing the skin’s hydration.

As a result, the film is also being explored as a wound covering, as it would allow the wound to be protected from the sun, keep it moist – an important factor for improved healing – and allow the wound to be monitored without needing to remove the dressing.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments,” said German.