Meet the roboticist who's teaching AI to write fortune cookies and TED Talks

Before Alexander Reben took to the TEDx San Francisco stage with a computer-written speech, he was trying to teach AI to write original aphorisms. The results are remarkable — and hilarious.

'The expanse of your thoughts, they may never happen,' said the AI

Alexander Reben donned a robotic face mask for his appearance at TEDxSan Francisco in October. (Gene X Hwang/TEDx)
Listen8:20

Alexander Reben wore a mask when he delivered a TEDx Talk in San Francisco earlier this month.

The mouth of the cartoonish face covering opened and closed as though in speech, but Reben, a roboticist at Stochastic Labs in Berkeley, Calif., didn't actually speak when he was on stage.

Instead, Reben's TED Talk was made up of the sometimes inane, sometimes prophetic ramblings of an artificial intelligence text generator.

Reben came up with the idea after building a system that writes fortune cookie fortunes based on inspirational quotes he found online.

"A lot of what the system spits out makes sense — if your stretch your mind a bit," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

For example: "Radical ideas may be hard for everyone to register in their pants, generally. And there's a dolphin," Reben's machine said on stage.

Alexander Reben performs an excerpt from his TEDx talk written by artificial intelligence. 0:15

The creation piqued the interest of TEDx organizers and they invited him to speak.

"I thought it would be interesting, instead of me talking about my work, to have a system actually create a TED Talk from scratch using these technologies," he told Bambury.

'Ideas change so quickly'

The audience wasn't totally in the dark. Reben included a disclaimer that the speech was written by a machine.

Still, he says, it took the audience a little while to get into it.

"I had a friend in the audience who described the reaction as befuddlement and quickly turning into humour," he explained. "Then people really got into it."

The system is similar to Reben's fortune cookie generator, but instead he plied the algorithm with the text of TED Talks from months and years past.

The AI spit out a series of largely nonsensical phrases and Reben curated the best.

"The thing that's hard is to make a thread of a story, because the ideas change so quickly in this sort of output," he said.

Feed it a library

Reben's system produces seemingly disjointed thoughts like 'I am a bad situation' because it's able to recognize structure and syntax, but not necessarily appropriate word placement.

Take two typical fortunes: one could say 'your days will be filled with happiness,' while another says 'you'll never be depressed.'

The AI might flip some words around and come up with 'you'll never be happy.' It's still a fortune, but not the optimistic prophecy one expects after dinner.

The limits of fortune or speech writing artificial intelligence aren't yet clear, Reben says. While you could feed a machine hundreds of poems, it would likely create something similar to what it has already read, instead of creating a fresh product.

'I kind of like the more existential dread ones,' said Reben about his AI-based fortune cookie fortune generator. (Alexander Reben)

Reben is interested in what would happen if you fed it an entire library.

"What if you went even larger and trained it on literature, whether it be poetry or a play or a novel, and have it maybe invent a genre of writing that we've never seen before, haven't even thought about as humans," he asked.

The challenge he's facing is that creativity isn't necessarily structured or logical, and Reben believes AI might hit a wall creatively. As it stands, humans are probably better served with an AI that recognizes stop signs in a self-driving car.

"Or there could be some breakthrough where it makes poetry that we find awful, but may be stimulating for other machine learning systems which judge poetry."


To hear more from Alexander Reben, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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