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Is Baymax After Your Job?

What if Baymax decides to put down his stethoscope and get into storyboarding instead?

Let’s say Big Hero 6 didn’t feature a robot providing health care but one that could create animations? Should you be worried?

As a cognitive scientist, I study the skills and knowledge you need to do your job. For example, if you’re a storyboarder or story artist, I look at the problem solving strategies, visual and spatial reasoning, and story devices you use in early development. I want to know how you go about transforming ideas, translating words and images. I want to learn how you use drawing to literally sketch out your thoughts about how the film should look and be sequenced.

One direction my research takes is theoretical – what the findings reveal about your knowledge that can benefit our understanding of complex cognitive processes like memory, attention, and perception.  Another direction is applied – how the research can help animation or film pre-production and teach new artists the craft of ‘boarding.

This instructional aspect of cognitive science is the basis of artificial intelligence (AI).

Most AI engineers use a Turing test to decide on the program’s effectiveness. For storyboarding, it would look like this:

  1. Study a group of expert storyboarders at their jobs. Break down their activities into discrete steps (kind of like mental key frames).
  2. Identify the rules, methods, goals, and resources the artists use (e.g., model packs, scripts, their “Bible”).
  3. Translate the findings into computer code.
  4. Run the program.
  5. If other expert storyboarders think that the program behaved like one of their colleagues, like a human ‘boarder or story artist, the AI program passes the test.
  6. Hire the robot and fire the artists.

This method is foolproof in tasks that are strongly mathematical or logically predictable. These are called “well-formed” tasks because they have a clearly defined goal or solution, use fixed rules, and generally have one method to guarantee success.

But design tasks like ‘boarding are called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems have:

  • No definitive goal: (“I want this film to be a blockbuster” is too vague.)
  • Competing goals: (Design adage: The client says, “I want it good, fast, and cheap”; you say, “Pick 2 out of 3.”)
  • Few fixed rules: (When was the last time you saw an entire film still using the 1800 rule? As Captain Barbossa said, “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules.”)
  • Superficial methods for combining the rules: (Yes, “director’s style” is how certain essential elements are predictably used. But if there were only one way to tell or visualize a story, every picture would be a blockbuster.)
  • Social validation required: (Audience-response is a fickle and moving target; focus groups have limited impact on critical or commercial success, or the historical legacy of a film.)

So, while the mechanical or technical parts of your job can be offloaded to a computer, the scope of knowledge needed to visualize on a narrative film is still too difficult to define at the level needed for AI.

And yet there are already AI programs – computational creativity generators – that will come up with puns, jokes, short suspense stories, poetry, music, and art. Combine them with pattern recognition or a search engine for images and, voilà; Baymax turns his stethoscope into a sketch-o-scope!

But can a robot be truly creative?  Some philosophers would argue that these generators do not really mean that the AI program is “creating” anything. That’s the wrong argument to take if you’re competing with Baymax.

That’s because the real value of storyboarding is in the act of drawing itself, not just looking at the final “output.” The real worth of ‘boarding or early visualization is in how the artists’ entire body and mind is engaged while drawing. In other words, how artists use drawing to help them think, transform and share their ideas.

But if you’re really worried about job security, here’s a referral to a really good psychoanalyst, ELIZA. Created in the mid-1960’s, you could say she’s Siri’s mother.

Note: you don’t need a Facebook account to use ELIZA.