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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

A bot wrote a believable Lord of the Rings scene, and now developers are scared of its power

By Benjamin Bullard
Hobbit LOTR box cover via Warner Bros site 2019

So flummoxed are researchers by the uncanny, human-like brain power of the machine-learning technology they’ve created that they’re censoring the AI’s open-source material from other tech pros after their wordsmithing bot dashed off convincing, totally made-up stories for The Lord of the Rings, newspaper articles, and a speech by John F. Kennedy, among other writings.

Time after time, the machine aced its creative writing assignment on the first try, working from nothing more than a human-written sentence or two of prompt material to get its creative juices flowing.

Given a simple, human-penned prompt for a scenario from The Lord of the Rings, the AI came up with a thoroughly readable vignette, written in precisely the same style. Sure, there are a couple of logical question marks (morning doesn’t turn to dusk in the blink of an eye, for instance), but it would take anyone a couple of passes before they might sense something’s a little off — and even then, it’s not off by much.

Here’s the skimpy LOTR prompt researchers gave their synthetic, techy Tolkien:

Legolas and Gimli advanced on the orcs, raising their weapons with a harrowing war cry.

And here’s only a small sample of what the AI came up with to continue the tale. Remember, all of this is completely written by a bot:

The orcs’ response was a deafening onslaught of claws, claws, and claws; even Elrond was forced to retreat. “You are in good hands, dwarf,” said Gimli, who had been among the first to charge at the orcs; it took only two words before their opponents were reduced to a blood-soaked quagmire, and the dwarf took his first kill of the night. The battle lasted for hours until two of the largest Orcs attempted to overwhelm Aragorn. When they finally stopped, they lay defeated and lifeless for miles and miles.

Via ArsTechnica, the aspiring Shakespeare brain is called the Generative Pre-trained Transformer-2 (GPT-2 ), and — to explain how it could bring Elrond into the LOTR story all on its own — it comes pre-loaded with 40 Gb of source text that’s been pulled from nothing more than a curated collection of “outbound Reddit links,” according to the report.

GPT-2 comes from nonprofit research company OpenAI, whose mission is to evolve artificial intelligence in a “safe” way. But the potential for such an AI to dupe the unwitting public, in the hands of bad actors, has convinced its handlers to limit what they’re sharing of the intelligence’s data-driven underpinnings with the wider open-source community.

Hopefully, the storytelling world will never be completely given over to just one soulless robot to write them all. After all, this kind of machine learning is adaptive, and it’s simply recombining elements from its broad database of information in ways that mimic patterns that people readily recognize — though it’s doing it, admittedly, at a mind-bendingly sophisticated level.

But with this kind of creative power now more than just a pipe dream, we’ve definitely got our eyes on Amazon as it continues work on its Lord of the Rings TV series. If we see any robots listed in the writing credits, we’re going to have to write a strongly worded letter of our own ... and ours will be totally authentic.