Arise Sir Generative: When AI Met the Queen

Example of one of Rudolf Ammann’s ImprovBot illustrations CC-BY-NC if you want to reuse…

Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of fun with generative AI. Last summer, I put on ImprovBot (with my colleagues Rudolf Ammann and Gavin Inglis), which was the world’s first AI-generated Arts Festival Programme. Taking  2.5 million words of material from the past 8 years of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society listings, we trained our neural network, The Bot, to generate “new” show blurbs, which we put our hourly over the expected period of the Fringe (which couldn’t happen in person last year), with custom generated imagery, and a live improv show every day from the Improverts, the Edinburgh University student improv society. We got fantastic coverage worldwide, include a 4 Star review from The Stage! – and the whole thing was a month long elegy for a Fringe, and its associated industries – that were decimated this year. We hoped to walk the line of poignant, fun, creative, and everything-being-mediated-by-tech these days. Incidentally, you can see all the outputs of the ImprovBot text over at Zenodo, and if you are after any art work to represent AI, we’ve licensed reuse of 376 ImprovBot illustrations CC-BY-NC: fill your boots with ones like the one above. An easy to download selection, also available under a less restrictive licence that allows for commercial use and does not require attribution, is available over at Pixabay.

Just before Christmas, the Alan Turing Institute (of which I am a Fellow) was asked by Wired Magazine if there was anyone who would like to explore generating a Christmas Speech for the Queen, using AI? Why yes! David Beavan and I were delighted to hack together a response, which went out on Christmas Eve:

To train the system, he had to combine the two datasets, one of the Queen’s previous broadcasts and the second of WIRED Covid-19 stories, into a single document to ensure both were equally considered. “You give it [GPT-2 ]the beginning of a sentence and the idea is it guesses the next word,” he says. After examining the results, the temperature is dialled up or down.

The system churned out thousands of words, which were then passed to Terras to edit down. She started by taking out anything negative or controversial – “the computer put together some dark stuff,” Terras says, especially around race, the commonwealth and war – and then selected relevant passages, keeping the sentences whole but altering order and placement. Some AI systems can analyse documents for structure, but not this one, so a helping hand was required. “I took a box of tiles and put them in a mosaic,” she explains. “There’s a lot of human editing.”

You can read the whole article over on Wired, and I’ll post our generated Queen’s Christmas Speech below. It was a lot of fun – but also raises issues of ethics, the amount of human interaction that is needed for the “softer” things (humour! power structures! respect!) and also the role of these low-hanging-fruit, quick win, playful things in the public engagement with AI and algorithmically generated content. Both of these projects weren’t technically doing anything new, but by pointing the power of generative text to a new, playful application – well, the results help us consider AI afresh, in a way which is explainable to others.

Enjoy the Windsor-o-Tron‘s output!

Christmas is a time for reflection on the past and making new friends. On the first day of the year, however, things began to look a bit more grim. I remember meeting Joseph and Mary at the Inn in Sandringham. We were both looking forward to the future and looking forward to our visit to Oxford this autumn. I shall never forget the scene in Windsor, where the Covid-19 outbreak was reignited. In the first lockdown, all tourists were restored to normal, adults were ordered to stay at home and children under five were allowed to stay at home.

I have spent the last couple of weeks listening to some of your radio and television interviews, which has touched me deeply. I have thought to myself whether it is time to send you my best wishes for Christmas and the New Year. The NHS has faced a real and growing challenge in the years ahead. It’s been a difficult few months for many people living alone. But with so much to build on and many exciting opportunities to be found in the nature of our relationship, this year I think it is safe to say that we are all looking forward to a new year.

We are also living in a time of social distancing: the less we live together the more distanced we become. I am thinking of those now living with their parents or caring for them at home. These people are now their families. That motherly instinct has helped to shape my own views of the world, thoughts on life and my own beliefs. I remember the first time I was asked by a kindly visitor, a man of few words, what year was Jamaica.

The world has to face its challenges and confront its problems with courage, patience and fortitude. A vaccine for Covid-19 hinges on the delivery of a drug, so that new antibodies can be triggered. But the real power lies in the invisible hand that draws the world in. When invisible hands come to the task, it’s often the invisible workers at the machinery who are making that change. It is through their example and willingness to show the world that they deserve our respect that we can make a real difference.

One of the things that has remained constant throughout the Commonwealth, I believe, is the effort to reconcile the differences between nations and between countries. That spirit of brotherhood which has survived the most serious challenge of the present century can be best expressed in the British Commonwealth and the Commonwealth international formula. Every year I look forward to opening the letters, parcels and telegrams that come to me from the Commonwealth. I can think of no better time than now to say a big thank you to all the people who have given so much to this country and all around the Commonwealth. Every one of them has given so much to me.

This year I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort in various fashions and colours, some of which are familiar to many of you. Naturally I would like to draw attention to the fact that my family and myself have enjoyed a very happy and prosperous past year. We are fortunate to have a home and some children.

Like many other families, we gathered to watch the bubbling fountains of humanity rise above the evil. In the meantime, members of my own family are celebrating Christmas with their families and we shall see further developments as I set out to see which side of the Atlantic the peace will be in the coming year.

In January 2021, after we’ve all lined up patiently for our jabs and the threat of the virus has receded, we may finally start to count the damage the novel coronavirus has wrought on our lives. The Prince of Wales also saw first hand the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. Yes, there are many of you unhappy families, but there are also millions of ordinary people who are helping keep our country and our Commonwealth together. They are making a real contribution to our society. There may be small signs of recovery, but in the meantime, we must all keep an eye out for signs of a slowing or complete return to the days when King James was a political and economically powerful man. 

The real value of Christmas lies in the message and the spirit that it brings. Christmas is a very human offering, and it speaks to the needs of all people. So, as it passes through our thoughts are diverted to other planets, and to the struggles beyond our control. 

The Christmas story reminds us that it is not only about one man, but about many. We have a message for you all: hope, peace, brotherhood and a happy Christmas. Whether you are talking to a friend, or a relative, or a stranger, or a visitor from another world, the message of Christmas is ever more relevant than ever. I would like to see a message of encouragement, as I go about my business in the rain.

Our lives are shaped by our past, and as we live out our future together we should know each other best. It is difficult for us to know far into the future as our families gather round us, but it is better that we have some sense than that we have any sense at all. I wish you all, together with your children and grandchildren, a blessed Christmas.

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