“The way you were sent to me… that was a big honest idea.”
Language is beautiful because of its malleability. Metaphor, simile, colloquialisms, these only work because we can take the literal nature of language and mold it into ideas in our heads, meant not just to express a physical reality but an emotional one as well. This is the wonder of poetry, the movement of abstract meaning into something that, through contortion and stretching of “natural language,” is able to express that which has no literal words to express it. Somewhere, in the cracks of proper grammar, we find something approaching the impossible, a moment being passed between two beings, if only fragmented, if only haltingly. As down as I am on consciousness as a whole (and I think it’s hard to be more down on human consciousness than I am), I will happily concede this point: language (and art, and the art language helps make) is the closest thing to a justification for this evolutionary misstep I can think of; abstract communication’s hopeless endeavor is also its sole redeeming feature.
“I think I could have been my life.”
Sunspring is a film written by an A.I. named Benjamin (he gave himself that name). He was fed an assortment of sci-fi scripts and asked to create one of his own, and what he returned was interpreted by a cast and crew in 48 hours to make a short film. His produced script is unwieldy, strange, and surreal, telling some approximation of a story about love and loss. There might be a murder, and there might be interplanetary travel. There’s a mention of having to “go to the skull.” One of the stage directions asks for a character to be both in the stars and sitting on the floor at the same time. Everyone wears metallic clothing, because it’s the future, and in this future because of mass unemployment young people are forced to sell their blood. But it’s not about that, except for the part that might be. And it is, to be clear, a step forward and turning point in our relationship to art and artificial intelligence.
“Whatever you want to know about the presence of the story, I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.”
The A.I. that wrote Sunspring is not self-aware. What it does is similar to what the predictive text function on your phone does, analyzing patterns and feeding back what should, on average, happen next. However, that only makes what it accomplished more odd, magical, and complicated. If the human brain is simply a stunningly advanced cause-and-effect machine, analyzing input and outputting reactions based on a complex synthesis of previous experiences, then at what point does this input-output stop being human and becomes less than? Does the computer have to, on some level, understand that it is thinking? How can that even be determined? Given enough re-coding, enough experiences, and enough feedback, it’s unreasonable to assume that some variant A.I. will not, in the future, arrive at a point where it can fool the most advanced Turing test it can be given, and know it is winning as well. This may be a Chinese Room solution, it may not be, but more to the point: if we find Sunspring moving, that is at least partially because of the script that was written for it, and that script was generated by a computer that, to the best of our knowledge, does not have a consciousness in any real sense. So are we moved by what it created, are we moved by what we receive from its creation, or are we moved by the original human-written scripts that were used as subject matter initially? In dadaist art, are we gaining meaning from the appropriated texts, or are we enriched by the self we bring to a non-autonomous piece? Were we given meaning, or are we creating it?
“I just have to ask you to explain to me what you say.”
If I feel the same way about words written by a computer as I do about words written by a human, the difference becomes blurred and malleable. How am I to know any other being has consciousness if the trappings of consciousness (of which art is a major one) can be sufficiently emulated through mimicry? Isn’t every statement of mind mimicry, just with a broader data set? I am a processor of my own, aggregating twenty five years of data into useable thoughts and communications. Benjamin wasn’t originally named Benjamin. In an “interview” conducted with him, he gave that as his name, and myself and his creators have accepted it as his name. Benjamin isn’t even a “he”. Benjamin isn’t even alive; he is inanimate and non-sentient. But yet we respect his “choice”, because the part of the brain that allows us to empathize extends past that which is “real”. This is its wonder. So when Benjamin writes a monologue that brings tears to my eyes, what I’m seeing is both a new tool and a new author of art. Sunspring is beautiful because of the way it moves, the way it speaks, the alien tongue it forces its actors to adopt, in much the same way Joyce’s masterpieces broke language down and forced us to reconsider it in its constituent parts. The ungainly becomes something entirely new, and it reflects something truly beautiful inside. Benjamin may not know what “love” is, but I’m perfectly content with the way he fooled me.
“I have to leave, but I’m not free of the world.”
Sunspring is goofy, aching, and tender, and in its language we find a wounded majesty, as good as any you’ll find cracking open a poetry journal. When it ends, we’re left to grapple with just what it means to arrive here guided by what we’ve come to associate with coldness, logic, simplicity, binary. And maybe it’s all in my head, maybe I see these essentially randomized phrases and I force them to congeal into something coherent and specific and personal. But is that not worthwhile too? It’s the most admirable trait of the conscious being, to be able to make sense out of the nonsensical, to apply lateral thinking and move beyond logic as it’s traditionally thought of and bafflingly fetishized. Is it less heartbreaking to see a character hear the woman they love say, “I don’t want to be honest with you,” when we know that line was “generated” as much as “written”? It feels the same either way, and it’s that feeling that drives it. This is what movies should be, this gut punch, this connection, this daring experiment.
“it’s a damn thing scared to say.”
When asked about whether cinema had a future, Francis Ford Coppola said, “Cinema is in its infancy. The thing that makes it difficult…is that we imagine the cinema as it is now and how we’ve been comfortable with it for the last fifty years. The truth of the matter is it will, like everything else, it will evolve and change…very definitely, the golden age has not yet come, of the cinema.” When I watch Sunspring, when I think about the future of this generative cinema, when I think about the future of A.I. assisted art, when the monologue closes and I have a knot in my stomach and a catch in my throat, I think I see a golden age dawning, growing out of Benjamin’s young mind.
“I’m going to see him when he gets to me. He looks at me and he throws me out of his eyes. And then he says he’ll go to bed with me.”
Sunspring is currently available for free here.
Directed by Oscar Sharp; written by Benjamin (an LSTM RNN Artificial Intelligence) and edited for the screen by Ross Goodwin; starring Thomas Middleditch, Elisabeth Gray, and Humphrey Ker; 9 minutes.