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Absolutely fabulist: The computer program that writes fables

Forget a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, researchers have created a computer program that writes fables by itself.

Image by Brett Jordon, CC BY 2.0

It might be a long way from "A Tale of Two Cities", but researchers at Australia's University of New South Wales have developed a computer program that is capable of writing its own fables.

The Moral Storytelling System, known as MOSS, has been developed by Margaret Sarlej, a PhD candidate at the School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW, led by Australian Research Fellow and artificial intelligence expert Dr Malcolm Ryan.

While humans are capable of creating simple or complex stories without a second thought, Sarlej said this is a skill that computers can't easily emulate.

"Most people can tell a story without having to consciously think about what goes into it -- the characters, events, sequencing, language and level of detail," said Sarlej.

"That's an innate talent that computers just don't have. They need detailed instructions for every step of the process, which is not easy to provide when, to a large extent, we don't even understand how people do it."

Using MOSS, the computer combines up to 22 different emotions to create fables that are more "alive" than AI-driven narratives have traditionally been.

"A human author simply decides an interesting emotional path for the story, and the computer does the rest," said Sarlej. "The computer decides the events to elicit those emotional responses from the characters, and the characters do whatever the plot needs them to do."

The program has been a long time in the making for the UNSW research team. In 2007, Dr Ryan attempted to get a computer to understand, and then reproduce, a page from children's book 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' by Beatrix Potter. However, replicating the emotions and characters with artificial intelligence proved beyond the abilities of a computer program.

"Humans have remarkable ability to do complicated things and see them as being quite simple," said Ryan. "It's only when you have to program a computer to do the same thing that you realise how much knowledge is required."

While Ryan admits "it's still very early stages," for AI storytelling, he described the development of MOSS as "an important step up for what these artificially intelligent storytelling systems can do".

Writing a story from scratch is no mean feat, but judging by one of the program's early attempts -- written about the idea of retribution -- MOSS may be a while off writing the next "Ulysses":

Once upon a time there lived a unicorn, a knight and a fairy. The unicorn loved the knight. One summer's morning the fairy stole the sword from the knight. As a result, the knight didn't have the sword. The knight felt distress that he didn't have the sword anymore.

The knight felt anger towards the fairy about stealing the sword because he didn't have the sword anymore. The unicorn and the knight started to hate the fairy.

The next day the unicorn kidnapped the fairy. As a result, the fairy was not free. The fairy felt distress that she was not free.