WBEZ’s Dueling Critics greet their new robotic overlords (part 1)


Just before I recorded my conversation with Kristian Hammond about applying insights from his machine-generated storytelling work to the Send My Robot project, I bumped into WBEZ’s dueling critics, Kelly Kleinman and Jonathan Abarbanel.  When I told him that Hammond and his colleagues at Narrative Science had computer software that could write news stories, they wondered, half-joking, if they could be next. I told them not to be silly.

As it turned out, Hammond told me later that generating “Siskel and Ebert style” movie-review segments was old technology from his work at Northwestern University’s Intelligent Information Lab.  A project called “News at Seven” had created a full-on newscast– anchored by animated cartoon avatars– that was entirely machine-generated.

And it included the movie review segment that Hammond had talked about.

So I arranged for the three of them to meet, in an on-air conversation on WBEZ’s 848, moderated by Richard Steele.  Kelly posted some reflections– possibly a bit more alarmed than amused– to WBEZ’s site in anticipation.

I think the truth about the state of the art was a relief to Kelly and Jonathan, but the hints about where it”s going may have caused them a bit more concern.

Relief:  News at Seven doesn’t actually review movies.  It writes a script based on analyzing what other critics are saying about a movie on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

And, as Hammond himself admits, the cartoon avatars are lousy performers– especially vocal performers.  that darn text-to-speech technology still isn’t ready for prime time.

Concern:  Hammond thinks that sending an actual robot to a play, and having it generate a review, could possibly work someday.  The same technology that could make my robot work– assessing tone of voice, detecting movement– could allow a robot to sense when an audience laughs hard, seems to be crying, holds its breath in suspense.

And maybe– this is my speculation– generate a review that at least could tell you how strongly the audience might have been affected.  (Think about those studies where scientists measure how turned-on human subjects get by looking at various kinds of porn…)

Here’s the audio from that conversation, if you want to hear how it went down.

… and after they left the 848 broadcast, Hammond and the critics kept the conversation going.  I roped them into an adjoining studio and rolled tape.  That’s part 2, coming later this week.

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