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.

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Renault unveils unorthodox ‘car of the future’: a dockable, peanut-shaped driverless pod

Renault has unveiled its take on the car of the future: a peanut-shaped, mulit-directional driverless vehicle that is capable of docking into a train of vehicles.

Designed by Yuchen Cai, a student of Central St Martins’ MA in Industrial Design, the vehicle is the winning design in competition run between Renault and the prestigious design school, and was honed during a two-week stay at Renault’s Paris studio by Cai this summer.

Dubbed The Float, the vehicle was unveiled today at DesignJunction, a four-day design event that kicked off today in London.

“Everyone has accepted that cars will be part of the sharing economy in the future – that’s what’s going to happen,” said Will Sorrel, event director of DesignJunction, this morning.

“This takes it one step further and these pods are this peanut shape so they can join together, so the autonomous vehicles can link up and join together if they’re going in the same direction, conserving energy.”

The Float by Yuchen Cai, winner of the Renault and Central Saint Martins, UAL competition

The Float is rather unusually designed to run using magnetic levitation – known more commonly as maglev – and would be capable of moving in any direction, eliminating the need for tedious three-point turns.

Made entirely of glass, the vehicle is designed to have sliding doors. Two bucket-style seats enable up to two passengers to travel per pod, and swivel mechanism ensures easy departure from the pods.

When the vehicle is docked to another, however, the passengers aren’t just stuck grimacing at each other through glass. Instead passengers can rotate their seats using built-in controls and power up a sound system that allows them to talk to the pod next door.

Those who are feeling less sociable can change the opacity of the glass, ensuring privacy when their neighbours are not so appealing to communicate with.

The Float is also designed to be paired with a smartphone app, through which would-be passengers could hail a vehicle as required.

“Central Saint Martins’ Industrial Design students really took this on board when creating their vision of the future,” said Anthony Lo, Renault’s  vice-president of exterior design and one of the competition judges. “Yuchen’s winning design was particularly interesting thanks to its use of Maglev technology and its tessellated design. It was a pleasure to have her at the Renault design studios and see her vision come to life.”

“From a technological viewpoint, the prospect of vehicle autonomy is fascinating, but it’s also critical to hold in mind that such opportunities also present significant challenges to how people interact and their experience of future cities,” added Nick Rhodes, Central Saint Martins programme director of product ceramic & industrial design.

“Recognition of the success of the projects here lies in their ability to describe broader conceptions of what driverless vehicles might become and how we may come to live with them.”