November 19, 2007

Michael Lebowitz on Universe

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 10:31 am

My interest in story generation, heightened by work on my book manuscript, has brought me to correspond with the authors of a number of seminal systems. I’ve been posting what I can share publicly, leading to posts about Tale-Spin (1 2) and Minstrel (1 2). Now I’m pleased to add a post with more information about Michael Lebowitz’s Universe.

I outlined the approach taken by Universe last year, in a series of posts contrasting it with Minstrel (1 2 3 4 5). But, as with my writing about other systems, this was entirely based on reading publications about the work — I hadn’t yet heard directly from the authors. In this post I’m including some of the thoughts and memories shared by Lebowitz in our recent correspondence:

I’ve got to admit to being surprised that anyone has run into UNIVERSE after all this time. It was a pretty small piece of work but one that was fun and I rather liked. We could have done a lot more with it these days — we were quite limited by computing power.

In terms of an archive I’m dubious. I really doubt they have it at Columbia. I had ported it at one point to one of my home PCs but that was many computers ago. There’s a small (small) chance I have a version on permanent media at home. I’ll take a look.

In terms of anecdotes around it, there are a few. One of the drivers behind the project was that a friend of mine and I watched Days of Our Lives. The project provided an in to talk to the writers at the show. I made one visit to meet with the writers and got copies of some outlines and talked about their creative process (which is quite mechanical given the volume they have to produce). I was impressed I was talking to real TV writers and they seemed impressed a professor was interested in them. 

A project that followed UNIVERSE was with a woman named Mary Milton at the Merkle foundation who wanted to create artistic interactive movies. We had an interesting project group of academics from film, AI, literature. We even did some experiments where we put video footage from Days of Our Lives on videodisk and sliced and diced them to make different stories. The project ultimately died for lack of funding and computer power, but it was quite ahead of its time when you see the directions videogames have gone.

Finally, OMNI magazine published a small fluffy blurb on UNIVERSE. Turns out they have a publicity department and that radio stations have a lot of time to fill So I did a bunch of radio phone interviews on plot generation and even a couple of TV spots. Vastly more publicity than any of my more serious work got. 

I’m intrigued to hear about the Merkle project, which turns out to have also involved hypertext fiction pioneer Michael Joyce. Hopefully I’ll be able to track down more information about it. If I can I’ll share it here.

After the message above, I asked Lebowitz a number of questions. I was curious about several issues, including how far development progressed with Universe, what they might have done with more computing power, and so on. Here’s the key paragraph from his reply:

The project never really got very far — it was basically just me and a few undergraduate projects. What it needed was a massively larger database. Even by hand we could have put in a lot more data if we had the computing power, but the way I would have liked to take the project would be to combine the work with what I’d done on Machine Learning and have it build its own DB. Imagine reading the soap plot summaries on say and automatically process them into fragments that could be reused (and real soaps certainly do reuse plot lines all the time). Ought to work.

Certainly an interesting idea. In my opinion, Universe is one of those intriguing systems that showed exciting early results — and that we could learn more from if it had been completed. What surprises would have emerged as the database expanded? What strengths and weaknesses would we see in Universe if used as a component of a larger system?