Writer's block may become a thing of the past as artificial intelligence is increasingly harnessed in the creative arts, and the first film written by a Japanese AI bot is aiming to demonstrate what it can do at a major short film festival this year.
"Boy Sprouted," a 26-minute short written by the AI "Furukoto" and directed by Yuko Watanabe, will feature in the lineup at the Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia, one of the region's biggest film festivals, themed this year on "meta cinema."
The story centers on a boy and his particular dislike of tomatoes, prompting his mother to go to great lengths to make him eat them. But little does she know her son has a plant literally sprouting from his back -- an idea that Furukoto cultivated itself.
"The quality (of the script) was about the same level as one written by a human. If I hadn't known, I wouldn't have doubted it was written by a human," said Watanabe.
Developed by the Japanese startup Ales Inc., Furukoto is an AI bot that embodies the essence of "Ki-sho-ten-ketsu" -- a Japanese narrative structure that follows the flow of introduction, development, twist and conclusion.
The AI, which draws its name from an archaic Japanese word meaning "story," generates a scenario by selecting appropriate sentences from a large number of candidate sentences using proprietary "P-S-L" technology developed in-house.
P-S-L stands for plotline graph, sentiment analysis and logline, and creates a story by evaluating and judging these three elements in a complex manner. It uses a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM, to generate the candidate sentences.
Currently, Furukoto can only output one A4-page scenario, equivalent to a 30-minute short, based on a one-sentence description of a story that is around 60 Japanese characters.
But while the AI system gets full points for creativity in "Boy Sprouted," its scripts still cannot compare to the level of detail in those written by humans, according to Watanabe and producer Hiroki Tawada, who also leads the Furukoto development project at Ales.
Producer Ryohei Tsutsui said the film also doubled as a research and development project to see how well an AI-written story could be brought to life with minimal input from a director.
"It was a challenge to transform the pure output into a production, and the director and staff had their work cut out for them as the outputted information lacked detail," said Tsutsui, who heads the film production company Trixta Co.
To avoid diluting the "pureness" of the AI output, Watanabe chose to communicate with staff using storyboards rather than relying on text, and said she "made sure to only insert dialogue that would not change a scene or its mood."
The long stretches of silence worked to create an eerie atmosphere fitting for a film that is classified by its director as part of the horror genre.
Although there have been a few short films made from AI-generated scripts to date, Tawada said that "Boy Sprouted" is the first to come from Japan, and the first with a meaningful plot.
"The previous films had incoherent plots, (but) the fact that AI made them was the point of interest. We didn't want to do that, we wanted to make a film with a proper story," he said.
In 2016, the science fiction short film "Sunspring," made as an entry to an annual film competition in London, had a screenplay written entirely by a LSTM-based AI bot.
While the actors played their parts convincingly and the result was strangely moving, the dialogue for most of the roughly nine-minute short was nonsensical.
In recent years, autoregressive transformer models, which are better at producing coherent human-like text with only a few prompts, have been heralded as the next phase in AI technology.
Hitoshi Matsubara, a leading AI researcher who founded Ales in 2018, said that an AR transformer model-based Furukoto is in the works, with the next script likely to be written using the new version.
"Our company's dream is to win an Oscar," he said with a laugh.
Furukoto is not yet able to write dialogue, but developers are working on adding the feature in addition to generating scripts long enough to create an entire feature-length film.
But Matsubara, also a specially-appointed professor at Future University Hakodate in northern Japan, said that while he is convinced AI has the potential to someday match human creativity, one fundamental difference will always remain.
"People have something they want to express, but AI and computers don't really have anything they want to say," Matsubara said. "People are often moved by the creator's passion, but this is absent in works created by AI."
Still, "Boy Sprouted" is a testament to what Furukoto has been able to achieve in around four years of development, and the use of AI in the entertainment industry is just getting started.
"I want people to feel the limitlessness of choices in life (through this movie)," Watanabe said.