Alexa, Tell Me A Story
BBC Earth|May - June 2021
Dr Lara Martin wants to teach artificial intelligence how to tell a tale and tell it well. She reveals to Amy Barrett why we need to train machines how to be storytellers and what Dungeons & Dragons has to do with it all….
Amy Barrett

WHY DO WE WANT TO TEACH MACHINES HOW TO TELL STORIES?

People have been telling stories since before we could write; we’re natural storytellers. So if machines were able to tell and understand stories as well, we’d be able to communicate with them more naturally. We’re starting to adopt conversational personal assistants – like Alexa or Siri – as a society, but these computers still don’t actually know how to converse. The most effective and personal way people have of conversing is by telling stories.

SO TEACHING AN AI TO TELL STORIES COULD IMPROVE OUR LIVES AND TECHNOLOGY?

A lot of people don’t realise how much nearly everything we say is a story, or could be framed as a story. I like imagining that you could just talk to your personal assistant, and it would work with you to figure something out. Like maybe you’re planning a birthday party for your kid, and you tell it “Hey, I’m planning a party for Gina’s 10th birthday. Can you help me?” and it can create a story about this party: “Every good party starts with cake. You could get a cake at the local grocery store, and then while you’re there buy some balloons. Once you’ve set up the decorations...” and so on. The assistant could collaborate with you to come up with this party narrative until you’re happy with it. I think there’s a lot of cool potential for human-AI collaboration here.

WHERE DO YOU START? AND WHAT ARE THE LAYERS YOU NEED TO BUILD TO TEACH AN AI ABOUT TELLING STORIES?

There are a couple of ways to start. Most modern techniques start with a tonne of stories. You collect or find a bunch of stories, and run them through an algorithm that memorises patterns in the stories, such as fighting the dragon usually comes before saving the princess, for example. Then you – the human – come up with the first sentence of the story and it’ll spit out the rest. These systems tend to be really good at generating brand new, grammatical English sentences, but they just ramble on and forget what they were talking about after a little while.

The earlier techniques – which some people are still working on – take a lot more effort to make. These researchers sit down and come up with all of the possible plot points in a story world and how they would connect. The system would then plan out a path to take through these plot points in order to create a story.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC EARTHView All

Inside The World's First Airport For Drones And Flying Cars

Plans to build the world’s first off-grid transport hub for drones and air-taxis have just received government funding. The Urban Air Port, located in Coventry, will offer flying electric vehicles a place to charge and load up. The project aims to lay the groundwork for a web of transport hubs that could provide a green, clean remedy to our cities’ groaning infrastructure. Daniel Bennett talks to Ricky Sandhu, the founder and CEO of Urban Air Port, to see if the idea could take off.

5 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

Pumas In The Peaks

Living secretive lives against the spectacular backdrop of Chile’s Torres del Paine, Patagonia’s pumas are proving a conservation success.

4 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

Waste Not, Want Not

Meet the communities forging the way to a trash-free future, by reshaping unwanted by-products into valuable resources

5 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

A Scientist's Guide To Life - How To Get Fit At Home

Due to the coronavirus, more people are exercising indoors. This month, we ask exercise researchers Matt Cocks and Katie Hesketh how to get fit at home

3 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

A Safe Space

Intrusive social media and online shouting matches have left people seeking the internet hideouts that allow them to be themselves

2 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

How Your Brain Creates Reality

Do we see the world as it really is, or are we creating our own reality? Here, we delve into the neuroscience behind the world that we experience

9 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

Species That Glow In The Dark

From the ocean depths to remote rainforests, bioluminescent organisms light up the natural world. We take an illuminating look at the species that glow in the dark.

8 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

A Universe Full Of See-Through Stars

Mysterious discoveries around the globe have opened up a tantalising possibility: the cosmos could be full of ghostly stars that are invisible to our most sensitive detectors

9 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

Who Is Britain's Greatest Prime Minister?

Three hundred years ago this month, Robert Walpole became Britain’s first PM. To mark this huge moment in political history, we asked five historians to nominate the 10 leaders who they believe accomplished most during their residency in Number 10

10+ mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021

Alexa, Tell Me A Story

Dr Lara Martin wants to teach artificial intelligence how to tell a tale and tell it well. She reveals to Amy Barrett why we need to train machines how to be storytellers and what Dungeons & Dragons has to do with it all….

7 mins read
BBC Earth
May - June 2021