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AI is shaping our future, but can it shape our stories?

by Dom Brancaleone, Executive Producer, 15 May 2019

Read Time: 6 minutes

In an article for Campaign, Georganna Simpson looks at five ways Artificial Intelligence is revamping entertainment, and predicts that AI will ‘change content, in real-time, based on viewer’s facial expressions’. In my opinion, this contradicts the whole art of storytelling.

There’s no denying that Artificial Intelligence will play a big part in shaping our future. Not just in the digital world, but our physical one as well. A quick Google search for news articles relating to AI throws up headlines indicating that the technology is already impacting a vast array of industries. These include the oil and gas industry, the manufacturing sector, and medical care, with many other industries exploring and implementing AI technologies. But when it comes to entertainment, how far will it really go?

Storytelling as an activity predates writing. You might’ve seen examples of cave art dating back to the Ice Age, which archaeologists believe were the earliest forms of communicating stories. Obviously, the way that we tell stories has changed dramatically over the course of history – but the principles remain the same.

Storytelling is a powerful and emotive tool, which is why we see it being used more and more in advertising and marketing. Businesses are using stories to take consumers on a journey, rather than promoting their brand directly. Take LinkedIn’s In It Together campaign, for example. By focusing on their audience rather than the service they offer, they pose the question “What are you in it for?” and use actual member’s responses for the basis of the video series. This not only sought to challenge the stereotypical perceptions of who used their service, but also helped them to convey authenticity and integrity. Social media is also playing its part. You only have to look at the way we’re using these platforms, with the aptly named ‘story’ function on Facebook and Instagram, to know that we are storytellers by nature.

But will AI revolutionise this ancient practice? Technology has certainly impacted the way we communicate and consume stories, but it doesn’t change the stories themselves. Simpson believes AI could. However, as someone that has studied screenwriting and the intricacies of crafting narratives for screen and stage, I’d argue it’s not as simple as having plot changes based on facial reactions.

When a writer sets about telling a story, there are a multitude of things they must consider. They have to create the arena in which the narrative is set. There are the characters – each with their own back stories, character arcs, character traits and goals. There’s the overall theme the writer is exploring, including questions or subjects for the audience to reflect on. And there’s the plot, constructed by a sequence of events that make up the story. By automating any of these elements, you strip out an important part of the structure and risk the whole thing falling apart and the vision being lost.

We’ve seen technology incorporated in some of these areas already – Black Mirror: Bandersnatch being a prominent example. In this interactive film released on Netflix, viewers are given the opportunity to take control and influence the plot. They are able to make decisions for characters, impacting the subsequent narrative. But this isn’t a new concept. When I was cutting my teeth in the TV and Film industry, I worked on a Channel 4 TV Series called Dubplate Drama. At the end of each episode, viewers were able to vote on the main character’s next move, with the winning storyline playing out at the start of the next episode. Spoiler alert – whichever plot was chosen; they would always feed into the predetermined narrative.

So, while it feels like the viewer is influencing the story, they are only adapting a small fragment of the plot. This could be classed as a gimmick, or it could be seen as an innovative way to engage the viewer and spark debate about important issues. The advantage of incorporating this interactive element is the potential for gathering data. By storing data on the choices viewers made, Netflix can use it to “determine how to improve this model of storytelling in the context of a show or movie.”

Poster for Bandersnatch TV Show Source: Tunefind

Other technologies have also presented interesting ways to enhance storytelling. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality both provide unique opportunities to make stories more immersive and interactive. But still, these are merely enhancements – they are not driving the narrative. They are being used to enable a new form of consumption.

As a writer, it is my goal to make an audience think, feel and in some cases respond to my narrative in a certain way. That experience will always be personal, but that’s because writing is a creative endeavour – and with creativity comes subjectivity. However, if my narrative is overtly cheerful because that’s how I want the audience to feel, just because an individual viewer doesn’t have that reaction, it doesn’t mean I want the narrative to adapt to engage their alternative emotion.

I can see lots of areas within entertainment where AI will be useful. Understanding audience behaviours can inform the type of stories we create. It can make advertising more targeted, news feeds more tailored and gaming narratives more personal to provide a unique and immersive experience. However, I can’t see that it will ever be able to tell a story based on our facial expressions alone. This can only lead to some sort of fragmented plot with distorted theme, characterisation and narrative.

It can take a writer years of research, writing, and rewriting before they are satisfied with a single piece of work. Not to mention the time it takes to find their unique writing style before that. And for a narrative to work, it takes all of the elements mentioned previously to come together to tell the story. If you displace or manipulate one of those elements, the impact is too great for the story to remain intact.

So, my prediction is that AI will certainly impact the type of content we consume and the stories that are created, and technology will continue to provide new and exciting ways for us to tell those stories. But when it comes to crafting a narrative, that will remain a task for us mere mortals – for now.

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