Can You Teach A Computer To 'Feel' Suspense? : Shots - Health News Scientists want to make computers into better storytellers, but to do that they have to teach the machines a tricky element: suspense. Now researchers believe they've taken a big step forward.
NPR logo

Can You Teach A Computer To 'Feel' Suspense?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432477373/432619185" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Can You Teach A Computer To 'Feel' Suspense?

Can You Teach A Computer To 'Feel' Suspense?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432477373/432619185" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This next story is about a robot and James Bond - not a plot for a new movie, but using Bond to try to teach a computer how to feel suspense. NPR's Chris Benderev introduces us to the project and the scientist behind it.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Brian O'Neill is a professor of computer science at Western New England University, and he believes that very soon, like it or not, we're all going to be talking more with computers. They'll be tutoring our students and taking care of our elderly, delivering jokes and rehashing their days. They'll be telling little stories like we all do, but, he says, there is a problem. Computers are super boring.

O'NEILL: Right now we can get them to tell things that maybe are, like, very simple stories, but they're not interesting. And we're going to want those stories to be interesting.

BENDEREV: To get to that point, he says, computers have to be able to recognize suspense. And to do that they'll need a very simple definition. Here is the one that he came up with.

O'NEILL: We feel suspense when we have less and less hope for a character escaping a bad situation. The less hope we have the more suspense we feel.

BENDEREV: Using that definition, he wrote a computer program called Dramatis that he hoped would be able to detect suspense in a Hollywood blockbuster. It can't actually watch a movie, but it can read a dumbed-down version of the script. When the hero reaches a dangerous point in the plot, Dramatis asks itself...

O'NEILL: If I were in this position, what could I do to get out?

BENDEREV: It tries to think up an escape plan. And the more that plan feels like a long shot, the higher it rates the suspense. Brian O'Neill put Dramatis to the test by feeding it this scene from a 2006 James Bond movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASINO ROYALE")

DANIEL CRAIG: (As James Bond) Should we up the blinds?

O'NEILL: In "Casino Royale," James Bond is playing a poker game.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASINO ROYALE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So it's $14,500,000 and it's up to you, Mr. Bond.

O'NEILL: A very high-stakes poker game in order to bankrupt this villain who's funding terror.

BENDEREV: Bond takes a sip from his drink, but then he realizes it's been poisoned.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASINO ROYALE")

CRAIG: (As James Bond) Deal me out.

O'NEILL: Quickly excuses himself from the table, grabs a salt shaker and a glass.

BENDEREV: He tries to drink a lot of salt water to make himself vomit, but this first escape plan...

O'NEILL: It doesn't do the job because the next thing we see is him staggering out into the street.

BENDEREV: New plan - Bond gets to his car and he phones London.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASINO ROYALE")

TOBIAS MENZIES: (As Villiers) Bond's been poisoned. He's going into cardiac arrest.

BENDEREV: He pulls out a defibrillator to shock his heart.

O'NEILL: He starts pushing the button and it's not working, so we start feeling more suspense because we know what the plan was. Judi Dench is shouting that...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASINO ROYALE")

JUDI DENCH: (As M) Push the damn button.

O'NEILL: We start to see that the wire's disconnected and that's when James Bond starts to pass out. Now we have a much harder task and we're going to feel even more suspense now because it's much harder to come up with somebody else who can save James Bond.

BENDEREV: In the end, Bond's sidekick zaps him back to life. But as things were getting worse and worse for our hero, Dramatis was delivering higher and higher suspense ratings. Later, Brian O'Neill had Dramatis and human subjects evaluate other movie scenes. And overall, the humans and the computer's suspense ratings matched up.

So does this mean Dramatis understands suspense? Livia Polanyi studies narrative at Stanford University, and she says Dramatis does a lot right. But it is still a long way off from fully grasping what makes us feel suspense; most importantly, our connection with the characters. If we don't care about them, we don't care what happens to them.

LIVIA POLANYI: I think we have to really account for what actually causes us to identify, to empathize and to care.

BENDEREV: Teaching empathy to a computer - that will take a while. But for Brian O'Neill, Dramatis is a good first step. Chris Benderev, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.