The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter.
I know that this may seem like an unlikely title for game designers, but I firmly believe that anyone who wants to work in the area of Narrative or Expressive AI should become intimately familiar with this story and regularly ask themselves the question “Could my storytelling system possibly produce works as richly complex as this?” I’ve found it to be a valuable exercise in humility.
I gave my notorious Peter Rabbit talk again at EIS last week. It always makes me feel kind of guilty. I first presented it at the AAAI Symposium in 2007 and after the talk Erik Mueller (author of the text on Commonsense Reasoning) told me that I made him want to give up his research.
In the talk I take a single page from the book as my text:
‘Now my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.’
If we were to build an AI that could understand or (more ambitiously) generate a text such as this, what would it need to understand? Setting aside issues of language and looking just at the events of this scene there are so many forces at work. Ask yourself: Why does Mrs Rabbit forbid the children to enter the garden? The answers are many:
- She remembers that something bad happened to Mr Rabbit there.
- She assumes, by analogy, that something similiarly bad could also happen to them.
- She is their parent are cares for them, so she does not want this to happen.
- She will be away and unable to prevent them from going to the garden.
- She knows that going to the garden is something that they might otherwise want to do (she does not forbid them from other misdeeds).
- She believes that, as their parent, she will be obeyed.
- As the author, Beatrix Potter wants to set up a scenario in which Peter will disobey. This is the nature of his character.
- By analogy with his father’s story, he will indeed get into trouble. He will escape, but not without some loss.
- This event is part of a greater narrative pattern of disobedience leading to adventure but ultimate comeuppance.
There is a lot at play here (without venturing anywhere near a deeper psychoanalysis of Peter’s role as the only male in a fatherless household and Mrs Rabbit’s ambiguous relationship with the baker), and I have never seen an AI system that could begin to handle such complexity. And yet a lot of people tout their fabulous* ‘story generation’ systems.
There is a lot of danger in AI of falling into a kind of arrogance that says “This is a problem that could be tackled with a computer. I know a lot about computers. Therefore, I can solve this problem.” The results are invariably ‘solutions’ which real experts from the field find laughably naive. If we want to make real progress in these areas (and I think we can) we need to work hand-in-hand with actual experts from the field. In the case of Narrative AI these people are writers and narrative theorists.
This is not an easy ask. I know from first-hand experience that it is very hard to sell Narrative AI to real experts in the humanities. Part of the difficulty is that computer scientists naturally take a structuralist approach to any other discipline and humanities research shifted from structuralism to post-structuralism several decades ago. However as more and more people are beginning to see the roles computers can play in diverse disciplines, opportunities are becoming more widely available. Taking advantage of them will involve learning to think and speak in unfamiliar ways, but the alternatives are ignorance and irrelevance.
* (pun intended)