Annalee Newitz

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In 1921, before there were Talkies, Arthur Blanchard invented a machine to create plots for big-screen pictures. Thirty years later, B-movie Hollywood director Edward Ludwig believed the time was soon when computers would do the screenwriting. Is such a thing possible now? Not exactly, though there’s a new AI that probably could replace Michael Bay and his incoherent, big-budget Hal-Needham-in-space crap. Bay’s someone who needs to be technologically unemployed.

In an Ars Technica article, Annalee Newitz writes about “Sunspring,” a short sci-fi film about a futuristic love triangle that was wholly written by a neural network named Benjamin, the brainchild of NYU AI researcher Ross Goodwin. The resulting work is odd and spirited, an offbeat and stilted regurgitation of current sci-fi tropes but with something of an eccentric auteur’s touch and the Dada poet’s pen. In its own way, it’s compelling.

Newitz writes of her reporting on the film: “As I was talking to [director Oscar] Sharp and Goodwin, I noticed that all of us slipped between referring to Benjamin as ‘he’ and ‘it.'” (You can watch the movie if you go to the article.) An excerpt:

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator, Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out the screenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed by Andrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.

Building Benjamin

When Sharp was in film school at NYU, he made a discovery that changed the course of his career. “I liked hanging out with technologists in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program more than other filmmakers,” he confessed. That’s how he met Goodwin, a former ghost writer who just earned a master’s degree from NYU while studying natural language processing and neural networks. Speaking by phone from New York, the two recalled how they were both obsessed with figuring out how to make machines generate original pieces of writing. For years, Sharp wanted to create a movie out of random parts, even going so far as to write a play out of snippets of text chosen by dice rolls. Goodwin, who honed his machine-assisted authoring skills while ghost writing letters for corporate clients, had been using Markov chains to write poetry. As they got to know each other at NYU, Sharp told Goodwin about his dream of collaborating with an AI on a screenplay. Over a year and many algorithms later, Goodwin built an AI that could.•

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Oh, it’s fun designing a city on paper or even redesigning one. At i09, Annalee Newitz has a thought experiment for making over New York: Imagine it all of a sudden becomes a megacity with triple the population and figure out how to make that sustainable. Probably good to practice since the number of New Yorkers will likely head to that stratosphere over the decades, if flooding doesn’t become a recurrent issue. An excerpt from the “Disappearing Streets” section:

“New York City is already one of the most densely-packed urban spaces in the world, with 10,724 people on average per square kilometer. To triple the living spaces here, we’ll need to build up — but we’ll also need to build between. The city could no longer afford to devote so much street space to the products of an already-shaky auto industry, and the city’s grid would change immeasurably. So would the laws that govern it.

For efficiency’s sake, Manhattan would have to retain a couple of the major avenues like Fifth, which cuts through the center of the island. But it would be reserved for trucks delivering food — or taking garbage out. Other streets would be for licensed taxis and services like Uber, while cars belonging to individuals might be routed to the edges of island, or to other boroughs entirely. Getting around in Manhattan would mean taking public transit, or paying dearly to get an Uber.

At the same time, there would be a flowering of pedestrian walkways like Sixth and a Half Avenue, which tunnels through the skyscrapers of midtown in between Sixth and Seventh Aves. As more skyscrapers grew, walkways would also take to the skies in bridges between buildings. To keep the ground-level streets less congested, pedestrians would be invited to walk Broadway from the air, hustling from building to building via a growing network of architectural tissues that would nourish a new sidewalk culture fifteen stories off the ground.

Some of these elevated sidewalks would be classic New York, complete with tar-gummed concrete and jagged nubs of rusted rebar poking out at odd angles. But others would look like high-tech works of art.”


Buckminster Fuller wanted to dome a chunk of Manhattan, but even that plan wasn’t as outré as his designs for a floating city. From “10 Failed Utopian Cities That Influenced the Future,” a fun i09 post by Annalee Newitz and Emily Stamm:

“Cloud Nine, the Floating City

Science — and science fiction — often influenced city designers. But nobody took futuristic ideas more seriously than mid-twentieth century inventor Buckminster Fuller, who responded to news about overcrowding in Tokyo by imagining cities in the sky. The Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Station, called STARS or Cloud 9s, would be composed of giant geodesic spheres. When filled with air, the sphere would weigh one-thousandth of the weight of the air inside it. Fuller planned on heating that air with solar power or human activity, causing the sphere to float. He would anchor his floating cities to mountains, or let them drift around the world. They were never built, but Fuller’s idea for a pre-fab, geodesic dome dwelling called Dymaxion House eventually influenced the pre-fab house movement which is still going strong.”

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Which populated areas of Earth might be suitable analogs for future communities on Mars? A few cities are suggested at io9, with the burgs of Nunavut in Canada among the most promising. From Annalee Newitz’s post:

“The far-northern territory of Nunavut in Canada is an excellent analog for Mars. Cold and dry, the region is home to cities and peoples who are used to surviving the cold without the vast resources of a wealthy land like Dubai. Here, you can see the John Arnalukjuak School in the hamlet of Arviat, Nunavut, which was built to withstand subzero temperatures while also using modest power. Low to the ground and insulated, the building is precisely the kind of shelter that would keep Martian kids of the future warm while they learn all about those weird old people from Earth.”