AI produces first new Brothers Grimm fairy tale in 200 years

An algorithm trained to mimic the Grimm style leads to a new story. "You might call it a form of literary cloning," says the co-founder of the app that commissioned it.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

The Brothers Grimm, who've been dead more than 150 years, are out with a new story, thanks to some help from AI.

Botnik, a group of writers, artists and developers tapping machines for creative pursuits, used their program inspired by predictive text on phones to mine the collected stories of the Brothers Grimm and suggest words and phrases in a similar vein. Then Botnik's human writers took over, adding their imaginations to the word mix to shape the AI's algorithmic suggestions into a story called The Princess and the Fox. 

Enlarge Image

"The word suggestions went a long way to helping the story feel Grimm-like, and the main contribution of the human authors was to give the sentences and paragraphs more coherence than would have emerged from simply letting a machine run wild," Jamie Brew, CEO of Botnik and one of three writers who helped craft the story, told me. 

The tale, which comes in at a little over 1,500 words, tells of a talking fox who helps a lowly miller's son rescue a princess from marrying the awful prince she doesn't love. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending. Calm, a mindfulness and wellness app aimed at helping users reduce anxiety and sleep better, commissioned the piece, which is now part of its collection of bedtime stories for adults. 

Calm calls it "The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale." 

"We're doing for the Brothers Grimm what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs," said Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of Calm. "We're bringing them back from the dead, with modern science."

German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm famously compiled children's folk tales and popularized enduring oral stories like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White that have been adapted into dozens of languages and made into Disney movies.  

Some of those stories, of course, contain disturbing images, like evil stepmothers and the wickedest of witches, that could easily do the opposite of lull children (or grown-ups) to sleep. But as Calm notes on its blog, The Princess and the Fox has a more soothing plot and feel than some of the scarier Grimm stories. 

AI is becoming an increasingly prolific author. It's penned books and choose your-own-adventure gamescomposed poetry in the style of the classics and written dialogue for a short sci-fi film starring David Hasselhoff as the Hoffbot.

Uh-oh? Should those of us who write for a living start taking coding classes and polishing up our resumes? Brew, who formerly wrote for satirical sites The Onion and ClickHole, isn't worried -- at least for now.  

"The main thing this particular kind of machine interface brings to writing is a fun and consistent set of constraints," he said, adding that starting with words and sequences from the source text guarantees the writing will at least vaguely resemble the source material. 

"With Botnik, we often find that this is fertile ground for absurdity," he said. "But as a writer, I can say the writing I do with Botnik is nothing like the writing I do without it. Neither kind of writing should be scared of the other."

Technically Literate: Original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on tech, exclusively on CNET.

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.