back to article Boffin rediscovers 1960s attempt to write fiction with computers

Next time IBM tries to convince you that Watson is the latest and greatest innovation that couldn't possibly have been done any time other than now, know that Big Blue tried to get a computer writing short stories in the 1960s. The existence of IBM's old work has been re-discovered by James Ryan of the University of California …

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  1. LDS Silver badge
    Devil

    Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

    ... and kept secret since then.

    It would explain a lot of movie scripts....

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

      And almost every TV movie script.

      1. Just Enough

        Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

        It's a pity they killed Dog. There was definite spin-off potential there.

        1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

          You can laugh

          But this is effectively what happened to Hollywood due to the unfortunate influence of Joseph Campbell.

        2. Rafael #872397

          Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

          Come on, Hollywood may resurrect Dog, or explain it was a clone, or it was all a dream, or do any number of prequels on the origin of Dog. Or Cat may want to avenge Dog.

          I just hope George Lucas or Michael Bay are not reading this.

        3. ibmalone Silver badge

          Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

          Son of Dog.

          1. The elephant in the room

            Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

            Puppy: Son of Dog

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

              There's more to this story than meets the eye,

              It starts telling us about a Lion who has had to endure severe hardship only to suffer the true indignation of being robbed by a dog. There is now a montage where the Lion becomes a hero and the dog who we now find out is actually a serial robber mysteriously dies. The Lion takes credit for this. The Lion, now victorious retrieves his heroin from where the Dog hid it to go back to his severe hardship of being a junky Lion.

              Up next week a Mouse pulls a syringe from the Lions paw.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

                "Up next week a Mouse pulls a syringe from the Lions paw."

                Argh....spoiler alert !!!!!

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

            Rogue Tiger - A Lion Dog Tale

        4. anothercynic Silver badge

          Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

          Ahhhh, but Dog could resurrect! You could make a reboot of the Lion Kills Dog story! ;-)

        5. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

          They can bring him back in a parallel reboot universe. Don't worry.

        6. JLV Silver badge

          Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

          >spin-off potential

          FTW: A Boy and His Dog

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

        And every James Patterson novel.

    2. Nick Kew Silver badge

      Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

      c.f. WayForward Technologies. Though Dirk Gently was a generation on in the 1980s, and they had apple macs.

      1. Teiwaz Silver badge

        Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

        c.f. WayForward Technologies. Though Dirk Gently was a generation on in the 1980s, and they had apple macs.

        That's be Wayforward Technologies II - Wayforward Technologies built computers door stops and draft excluders that looked like computers (most notably Quark II) - naming kind of familiar?

    3. Hero Protagonist

      Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

      There's a reason they call it "rebooting a franchise"

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

      IIRC a little note about a script generator appears in the first 2 volumes of DE Knuth's "Art of Computer Programming."

      Definitely pre 1971.

      I think it was a scene from a Western

      Keep in mind all adventure games are (essentially) user directed stories with the collection of artifiacts and capabilities triggering the (potential) ability to change to the state of what is in effect a giant FSM.

      Over the years "Archeological programming" has found that people were dealing with idea at a far early date than people might expect them to be being attempted given the (in hindsight) very limited computing power available. ELIZA was a p**s take of the idea of automated therapy, but there really was a "psychiatrist computer program" under development in the late 60''s (it was a big driver for much of Schenk's work on "scripts" and "Speech acts.")

      1. swm

        Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

        "IIRC a little note about a script generator appears in the first 2 volumes of DE Knuth's "Art of Computer Programming."

        Definitely pre 1971"

        In 1965 there was a program on the Dartmouth Timesharing System that produced never ending pornography. There were checks for proper sexes to do whatever etc. Lots of 4-letter words.

        This program was actually quite useful because in the early days output destined for one TTY would sometimes end up on another TTY due to a programming bug. We tried putting out messages like "if you see this contact the computer people" but they never did. Running this program they always called immediately.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Probably the software was bought by Hollywood....

      > It would explain a lot of movie scripts....

      Not unless they introduced a serious bug. The article talks about "10²⁰ variations on a story". Variations, not repetitions, you understand.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The computer can produce about 10^20 plausible variations [...]"

    Someone could film a set of episodes and actions to produce the ultimate pr0n generator. A DVD could produce a different video every time it was played.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That's a good idea, you could alternate what the repair man is coming to fix adding a near infinite number of scenarios. Add to that a rotating soundtrack of dodgy instrumentals that never quite made it onto Starsky and Hutch and you have a winner.

  3. Mage Silver badge

    Stuff like this

    Some Hollywood company had a "plot generator" that worked a little like this, without a computer.

    I've read about several similar attempts to this since. Most of the output is useless, but some variations can be used by a real writer to develop a real story.

    The number of plausible variations output is more related to the amount of input than any cleverness in the program. In this case the point is not the "output" but the achievement of getting it to work at all.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Stuff like this

      Or they could invest in a set of Rory's Story Cubes. If you have kids or just like writing fiction, these are a great little toy for coming up with story ideas.

  4. alain williams Silver badge

    Computers that write fiction ?

    Happens all the time -- look at anything that generates management reports.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Computers that write fiction ?

      ...or BOFH/PFY expenses claims!

  5. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Terminator

    Does not compute!

    That explains Trump's tweets, he's a robot powered by a IBM Model 650.

    1. Evil Auditor Silver badge

      Re: Does not compute!

      You'll find that the IBM Model 650 is far too intelligent.

  6. Herbert Meyer

    there is a science fiction story about this ...

    Which I will find sometime later. Back from the '50s or '60s.

    Basic thesis is that genre fiction is stereotyped, and selecting among the variations will generate something as good as the hack writers output, at lower cost. Consequence is starving writers with starving families.

    1. Milo Tsukroff

      Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

      The book is "1984". All pronography was computer-generated. It was said, if I remember properly, that such stuff was seen as so formulaic that it could be written by machine.

      1. Dr. Ellen
        Terminator

        Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

        There's another: The Silver Eggheads (1979) by Fritz Leiber. There, humans serve as the plot generators, which are then fleshed out by computers/wordmills into something called "wordwooze" which was the human populace's chief entertainment. It was a desperate time indeed when the 'writers' rebelled and destroyed the wordmills, for none of the humans were really competent at writing. Fortunately, Zane Gort (a robot who wrote stories for other robots) was able to help out. His robot pronography was ... interesting. Pray you do not fall into the hands of Dr. Tungsten.

      2. swm

        Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

        I knew someone in college that wanted to learn French. To keep her interest up she got some French pornography. It didn't work.

        1. There was only a working vocabulary of 50-100 words

        2. She got very bored very quickly

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Automatic_Grammatizator

      1. Herbert Meyer

        Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

        That sounds like it. I have not been able to find a copy of the text. Roald Dahl, huh ? Respectable, not at all a hack.

        1. Tommy Pock

          Re: there is a science fiction story about this ...

          https://lengish.com/texts/text-89.html

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What if the dog was stealing medicine to help out another dog?

  8. ukgnome Silver badge

    I used to play around a lot with MegaHal - (kids, look it up)

    The best line ever received was - You are the moments that you drink tea

    1. HwBoffin

      Megahal

      I remember writing a little script to make megahal chat in a P2P network chat room about 2 decades ago...

      It was really funny see all the users chatting with it. We admins kew what it was, but other users really had the most interesting conversations with it.

      Some people got angry with it, suspecting a troll.

      Downside was that after a few weeks the bayesian database got so big that I had to restart it periodically to avoid stalling my work station.

    2. Sanguma
      WTF?

      MegaHal

      I once fed The Book of Mormon and several other such texts through GNU emacs meta-x dissociated press.

      "If inside the queen I was connectoring her" was one such gem of wisdom; "But I wife, young woman stood tietarybod some on my neck, so it seemed thadn't seen he's love until I ducked.

      "I can to steal something parts obviously not!""

      was yet another. It is my settled conviction that Hollywood would benefit from the wholesale replacement of scriptwriters by travesty generators; they've already taken over politics ...

      In closing let me point some things out to any politician who may be reading my humble words:

      "I had probably been the floodgates that I do not always leaving his daught you had the too!!!

      Leaving her eyes. I himself dry and girl she was too vable. Or a summer sun Ocean plate, alsome of those shopen and went outside and cur piece, mightime was far as fire and that you broke damnedest which have ent doo!!!"

  9. CaptainCorrection
    Coat

    What happened to the Lion?

    Maybe Peter Jackson could turn that story into a movie trilogy.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: What happened to the Lion?

      He'd also need a prequel and a sequel to fully tell the story, then another set of films from Dogs perspective. Oh and the "Making Of" documentaries (to be sold separately) - In total about 10 films (excluding "Directors Cuts"), should keep him busy for the next decade or so

    2. Marcus Fil

      Re: What happened to the Lion?

      Anyone who can take an outstanding novel like "The Lovely Bones", miss the point entirely and make a film that contains some of the plot points and some of the characters could, and should, be replaced by a computer.

  10. Chazmon

    My current toilet reading is a compilation of Grimms' fairy tales and I have to say they are utterly rubbish. There is a modicum of narrative arc in some of them but it is often a series of random events which happen to the same person (usually royalty).

    The Lion story would certainly be in the top half!

  11. Nick Kew Silver badge

    It was a dark and stormy clock

    Memorable real-life first line of a computer-written tale encountered in my student days, early '80s (tale probably dating back to the '70s: the printout looked old).

    By then they also had 'puters composing original music.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It was a dark and stormy clock

      "By then they also had 'puters composing original music."

      You err sir. That was Kraftwerk.

  12. Peter Sommer

    And also at the National Physical Laboratory

    Dr Christopher Evans was a popular writer on science and technology topics in the 1960s who also appeared on TV. His "real" job was at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington researching the "man/machine interface". I was a guinea pig on a programme assessing whether "arts graduates" (ie me) would ever be able to use a computer. But one of the things he showed me that really captured my imagination was a science fiction short story generator. In effect all the stories had a similar structure and all that was happening is that at various points there were collection of words that could be randomly inserted. To my young eyes this was so novel and exciting that I never asked him whether he had invented to story generator or had borrowed the idea. And no, I can't remember what computer the program was running on...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And also at the National Physical Laboratory

      "And no, I can't remember what computer the program was running on..."

      Tsk. Art students.

  13. Tom 7 Silver badge

    This was before all the different bus standards

    so the sex themes were a bit monotonous.

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: This was before all the different bus standards

      "Darling, I think we've got our IRQ's wrong. And that's clearly not the right port."

  14. rmason Silver badge

    Explains a lot...

    Dan Brown has a new book coming out soon.

    It's clearly been dusted off and plugged in.

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