Man and the Machine

By Danielle Pope

Man and the Machine
A former speechwriter for Barack Obama, creative technologist Ross Goodwin’s love of words and tech have led him to devise artistic innovations, including a robot-written screenplay

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area of California, Ross Goodwin is the first to admit he was a geek. “I was a huge nerd. I was really into physics but I was also an athlete,” he says.

Being a “huge nerd” has paid dividends, though, as Goodwin’s experiments with art and technology led him to co-create the project Sunspring– the world’s first film based on a screenplay written by artificial intelligence (AI).

This achievement was the culmination of Goodwin’s many years of wordsmithing and tinkering with his beloved tech. He says he was always fascinated with machines and began learning how to use computer code to generate language after studying coding at graduate school.

“When I learnt there was such a thing as natural language processing, or writing using computer code, I thought ‘I want to do that, that sounds amazing!’” he says.

From here, Goodwin developed a software programme that handles natural, or non-computer, language to then make the computer generate a written result. This is achieved via an algorithm where the computer has analysed thousands of books and absorbed the statistical patterns within them. There is human involvement to an extent, which Goodwin likens to a person playing a piano.

“You can make it play whatever you want, but you’re not emitting the noise or the text, so at the end of the day that’s the appeal of the tool,” he says.

Goodwin’s next creation was the, an app-and-device combination that narrates photographs in real time.

Ross Goodwin presenting his wordcamera at the recent Vivid Ideas Festival

Goodwin’s innovative tech tinkerings, no doubt, show a distinctly human influence – and from pre-eminent humans at that. After leaving school, Goodwin studied politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. He was particularly interested in language; an interest which only increased after he worked for the renowned American linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky.

“I decided that I wanted to be a speechwriter,” Goodwin says. “At the time, I was really interested in mass communication, and how rhetoric was imposing on policy making.” He also believed the move would make him a better writer, “But that didn’t end up being the case,” he laughs.

Goodwin pursued his passion for words and went on to work for the Obama Presidential campaign in 2008, where he ran the “Republicans for Obama” programme, writing speeches for the presidential candidate, and trying to push Obama’s message to Republicans.

Goodwin says his experience at the White House gave him a unique insight into the realities of politics. “Once you see how the sausage is made, it’s hard to unsee it,” he explains. “It definitely made me realise that people in power are real people, who have flaws and are just like everyone else.”

So with his extraordinary success in merging human language and machines, is technology killing the written word? “Not at all,” he says. “I think technology is actually setting language free.”


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