When we think of chatbots, aka chatter bots, we normally imagine computer programs that can mimic simple human conversation. Chatbots can generally respond to a narrow range of questions about themselves. If they’re connected to the Internet, they might also be able to look up answers on trivia topics or tell you the local time or weather conditions. Chatbots might even be able to take input from you and turn it back around to create the illusion that they’re listening and empathetic. This illusion is quickly dispelled, though, with an errant response or with the repetition of the exact same answer that the chatbot gave previously.
Back in 2010, a group of students at the University of Twente in the Netherlands created a computer system they labeled The Virtual Storyleller. One of the key contributors to the project, Ivo Swartjes, wrote his doctoral dissertation on The Virtual Storyteller project. The software is based on a concept called emergent narrative. As the name suggests, an emergent narrative is one where the story evolves organically with no predetermined outcome. Character agents interact with each other within the framework of a storyworld. They take actions based on their beliefs and goals and the result is a spontaneous narrative that hopefully holds the interest of the listener.
Based on Swartjes’ description of the system, the team anticipated a broad range of storytelling needs and challenges and proposed interesting solutions to many of them. For example, a technique called late commitment allows characters to fill in details of the plot once the story is already underway. This spontaneity makes the story more dynamic.
Emergent narrative plays a big role in the world of gaming. Games are compelling because they immerse the player in a deeply textured fantasy world. They also offer the player choices to keep the world from appearing pre-scripted. As affordable conversational robots, such as NAO and the newly announced Pepper, arrive on the scene, it seems there’s an opportunity for emergent storytelling technologies. A robot that can make up interesting stories at bedtime, or anytime you’re bored, would be a great companion. Perhaps we’ll see storytelling architectures, such as the techniques used in The Virtual Storyteller, applied to chatbots and conversational robots in the near future.