UCF students tell stories with artificial intelligence

(Left to right) Lucas Pasqualin, Max Waldor and Josh Wade discuss the AI project while in Germany.

Josh Wade has loved telling stories for as long as he can remember, filling a binder with short stories from an early age until he finally found the ideal outlet for creating collaborative, extensive stories.

Dungeons and Dragons.

Years of playing the collaborative storytelling game prepared Wade for a collaborative project that would not only allow him to create stories, but also utilize his computer programming skills.

In 2014, computer science professor Avelino Gonzalez applied for a grant to create an Artificial Intelligence program that would utilize various modules to generate stories that are unpredictable and modifiable so that no two stories are ever the same.

As soon as Wade heard about this opportunity, he was intrigued and excited to join in.

“I first heard about it when he made an announcement in his Computer Science I class back in January of 2015 where a fellow cohort of mine, Max Waldor, heard about it,” said Wade, junior computer science major.

The project was planned to span across three years, the summers of which would be spent in Germany working with computer science professors who have experience with storytelling programs. Wade and Waldor, fellow junior computer science major, both began trying to learn German as soon as they learned of the project.

Wade and Waldor additionally worked with graduate student Josiah Wong and undergraduate student Lucas Pasqualin.

The team called the program AESOP, or Automatic Eclectic Story Origination Program. They envision the program as an app that could be used to tell bedtime stories to a child, drawing inspiration from traditional German fairy tales in some of their early test runs for dummy characters.

In addition to German fairy tales, Wade used his experience with Dungeons and Dragons to help develop the program. He was in charge of the goals algorithm, which gives characters in the story a set of goals that will influence the story’s outcome. Similarly, in Dungeons and Dragons, players influence the outcome of the game by making decisions that line up with their hero’s goals.

“It inspired the project in a number of ways, especially how characters have numerical attributes that determine what they’re capable of, how they feel towards each other, and how they go about their daily lives,” Wade said.

While in Germany, the team didn’t only do work.

While almost all of the programming currently done on the project was completed in Germany, Wade said the professors they were working with thought that it was important to explore the country and familiarize themselves with it.

“It really struck a chord with me that there is so much more to our research experience beyond trying to write a program that can tell stories,” Wade said. “There’s so much that is not opened up to you if you just lock yourself in a room and try to study things without interacting with the rest of the world.”

While the team enjoyed their time in Germany, both adventuring and programming, they are now validating and verifying the progress that they’ve made. They are ensuring that what they have so far makes sense for others who look at their coding.

The project has been a team effort with each individual bringing something to the table to work on their own aspects of the program. However, Pasqualin has described Wade as taking over a leadership role on the team as the project progressed.

“Josh is a funny guy,” Pasqualin said. “He’s very passionate, and he likes having things his way, but when it comes to coding and implementing things, he’s always willing to make a compromise or at least talk about things and try different things out. He also likes to play Dungeons and Dragons after work or in the office, and he’s a really friendly guy.”

Storytelling has been a major influence throughout Wade’s life, including influencing his future career choice. He met Waldor trying to recruit new Dungeons and Dragons players, and even set up a few games for the group while working in Germany, and he hopes to study game development in the future.

“From an early age, I decided that I wanted to do something involved with games,” Wade said. “I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember, and D&D was actually one of the first things ever to push gaming as a group hobby. What D&D introduced was that you are not just a faceless master of minions. You’re an actual person.”

Wade hopes that his experience with this project will help him be accepted into the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy for graduate school after graduating from UCF.

With the first year of the project drawing to a close, Wade and the rest of the team currently working on the students are preparing to take a step back from the project and let the next group of students take over with minimal input from them. They have laid down the groundwork for the program, giving future programmers the skeleton.

“I’m just really excited to see other people’s take on the project and see how they evolve it from where we were, so I’ll definitely be keeping tabs on the project as it keeps moving with the new people,” Waldor said.

Before they leave it behind, however, the team is working on a research paper about the basic structure of the program, with Wade doing most of the writing with input from the rest of the team.

It will describe the modules that were successfully created and that are functional. The team hopes to have it published in the Florida AI Research Society magazine. They’re currently recruiting the next team of programmers.

Interested students can email Gonzalez for more information.

Originally published Nov. 6, 2016.

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