AntipodeanSF Issue 309

By Soramimi Hanarejima

Unable to afford a robot babysitter, she lets him use the storytelling AI with no time limit while she has the evening shift at the crystal ballroom. It’s far from ideal, but with indefinite access to this child-appropriate narrative technology, snacks on the kitchen table and all his usual toys, he should have enough to keep him content.

More than content, she finds out the next day. During breakfast, he excitedly recounts the stories he listened to last night. They run the gamut from high-seas swashbuckling to talking animals on a vacation gone awry. Pleased with the results of this budget-friendly childcare arrangement, she decides to try it again later in the week.

The next time she comes home from the evening shift, he’s sound asleep on the sofa with the AI still narrating a tale of space exploration adventure.

The following morning, he declares that he’s going to be a storyteller when he grows up. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that’s not something you can make a living as nowadays. She simply nods, hoping this is just a phase.

But if it is, it might be a long one. For days on end he tells her stories he’s made up. They’re good for a child his age but have all kinds of extraneous elements and plots that hinge on peculiar coincidences.

After this has gone on for a couple months, she tries channelling his zeal into creating storytelling AIs. With the money she’s saved on robot babysitting, she buys him one of those AI design kits she’s heard so much about. This will make him more tech savvy and just might lead to an interest in the field of artificial cognition.

“Now you can make machines that tell stories,” she says when she gives him a kit for beginners.

He looks dubiously at the kit and says, “But I like making my own stories.”

“You still can,” she assures him. “AI just gives you more storytelling possibilities. You could make a story then set up an AI that makes a sequel. Or tells the same story with another character’s perspective.”

This piques his curiosity, and by the end of the week, he’s got specialised AIs with names like sequelbot, sidekick narrator, juggling partner and escape artist. She’s impressed by what he’s accomplished using just the beginner kit, and he’s excited about the stories he can make by working together with these AIs — storybots, he likes to call them.

The excitement propels him through cycles of making more stories and more storybots. His stories rapidly get better and better, featuring complex characters navigating twists and turns of plot. Once he starts sharing them with friends, these new stories make him popular among his classmates. During recess and at lunch, they gather around him to sample his stories and download copies to their watches.

Soon he’s making bespoke stories for them, then getting requests for custom storybots — ones that tell tales about dragons, a travelling circus, musicians in a forest kingdom and seafaring cats. Excited to use his skills to delight his fellow third graders, he works diligently on each project like it’s homework that will be graded by a teacher who is strict but not unfair. His efforts are rewarded with compliments. He’s especially happy when one classmate tells him that she listens to her storybot every night.

“I love how the stories are told,” she says. “The storybot’s voice makes me feel like I’m a bird or butterfly following the oboist through her world.”

Naturally, kids in other classes start asking him for storybots. At first, it’s exhilarating, like everyone is coming to him with puzzles only he can solve. But the numerous requests quickly get overwhelming, and it seems necessary to refuse new requests until he finishes the ones he’s already gotten. Then he realises he doesn’t have to solve all the puzzles himself.

During morning recess and after lunch, he shows anyone who wants to learn how they can make their own storybots. Every time, kids of different ages crowd around him, watching attentively as he demonstrates the steps needed to build a storytelling AI.

He proves to be an effective teacher. In just a couple week’s time, everyone who wants customised storybots is either making their own or asking someone who’s learned how to. And he’s back to working on just his own storybots. Everyone is happy.

Until teachers and parents get upset that several fifth graders have made storybots specialising in inappropriate stories. No one blames him, of course. But this turn of events gets him worked up, making him first disappointed then outraged that these older students would use what he’s taught them to entertain themselves with tales that are crude and even insulting.

When he explains what happened to his mom, she listens sympathetically as she makes dinner. 

“How could they use something so cool for something that stupid?” he asks her.

“There are always people who will use what they’ve learned in ways they shouldn’t,” she says while slicing tomatoes. “But you don’t have to let that make you feel bad. You can let go of things that are out of your hands.”

“How do I do that? I’m so angry.”

“Try focusing on what is in your hands.”

“Like making my own stories?”

“That’s right,”she says, then puts down the knife and looks into his eyes. “Make them the way you think they should be. That is entirely in your hands. What should stories be about?”

“Amazing things. People doing amazing things. Finding amazing things.”

“OK then, make stories about amazing things! Then share them with friends. Show them that stories about amazing things can be really wonderful. I bet they’ll show you stories about beautiful things, complicated things or even strange things, and those will be wonderful too.”

He’s not entirely convinced, but whether his mother ends up being right or wrong, this sounds like a story that’s worth seeing where it will go.

rocket crux 2 75

About the Author

barred owl 300Ever yearning to be spellbound by ideas of a certain fanciful persuasion, Soramimi Hanarejima often meanders into the euphoric trance of lyrical daydreams, some of which are chronicled in Soramimi’s neuropunk story collection "Literary Devices for Coping".

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The AntiSF Radio Show

antipod-show-50Our weekly podcast features the stories from recently published issues, often narrated by the authors themselves.

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Meet the Narrators

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  • Barry Yedvobnick

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  • Mark English

    mark english 100Mark is an astrophysicist and space scientist who worked on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. Following this he worked in computer consultancy, engineering, and high energy research (with a stint at the JET Fusion Torus).

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