The human instinct to tell stories is strong. So strong, in fact, that sometimes people see stories when they’re not there.
In the 1940s, two researchers set out to demonstrate the proclivity of humans to see stories, even in random events.
Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel created a short animated film in which a small triangle, a large triangle and a circle all bounced around a box on a two-dimensional plane.
There was no plot. There was no drama.
Yet viewers saw a story unfold in the random movements of the shapes. And 70 years later, the video still activates that storytelling instinct in people. See for yourself.
The students of M.S. 88, a middle school classroom in Brooklyn, are no exception.
When English teacher Keith Christiansen showed his students the Heider-Simmel movie, he heard everything from “the big triangle is beating up the small triangle” to “you could say that the big triangle was desperate for a friend.”
Finally, one student summed up what they were all experiencing.
“The video’s a blank canvas and then our mind and experiences are the paint,” he said. “Then we just apply that to the video, and then we get what we get.”
Humans may be able to paint that blank canvas easily enough, but it turns out the Heider-Simmel video is one of the toughest nuts to crack in the field of artificial intelligence.
Andrew Gordon, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, is trying to program computers to do what those eighth graders in Brooklyn did.
“I’m trying to build a computer that can … interpret what’s going on, anthropomorphize the triangles and circles in those movies, and come up with a real narrative that is insightful or that is human,” he said.
Gordon said he’s fascinated by how easy the Heider-Simmel exercise is for people.
“They’re so good at watching trajectories of triangles moving around the screen and coming up with these deep explanations of their emotional state, of their plans and goals and their fears and their personal relationships with each other,” he said. “The truth is, it’s super, super hard for computers.”
The problem, Gordon said, is that common-sense knowledge about human psychology that comes with being human.
If someone is robbed, they will be angry. If someone is in love, they may do silly things.
“Who’s going to tell that to a computer?” he said. “You have to write down all those rules.”
Gordon said computers don’t have many compelling things to say quite yet.
“The lives of computers right now are not very interesting,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading and writing from hard drives. Not the stuff of great Hollywood storytelling.”
That doesn’t matter so much to Gordon. The end result of his work is not entertainment.
“There are some times we want to hear stories from computers because we can get them to watch stuff that would be too expensive to have humans watch,” he said.
Gordon’s project is funded by the Navy.
“Now, why would the Navy care about triangles moving around screens?” Gordon said. “If you look at a Navy radar, it’s populated with a lot of triangles moving around.”
Gordon’s computers could eventually be watching the triangles on that radar to root out patterns and intentionality.
“I’m very happy to have my computers stare at triangles moving around screens … and be able to craft a narrative or a message,” Gordon said, “so that it could be understandable to a 19-year-old sailor on the deck of one of these ships.”
Andrew Gordon created an online game that allows you to animate your own Heider-Simmel-like movie, and to narrate other people’s creations. Gordon uses the data to refine his algorithms. It’s free, and it’s called Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater.
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