January 15, 2006 in Showcase
James Meehan’s Tale-Spin, created as part of his 1976 dissertation, The Metanovel: Writing Stories by Computer, was the first major project in the area of story generation. Like one of Calvino’s invisible cities, it creates an alternate landscape in which the inhabits live in a manner evocatively different from our own — with all actions the result of plans, the locations of items only learned by convincing someone to tell you, and no one feeling an emotion without knowing it. Like Aesop’s fables, Tale-Spin‘s view of human nature was communicated through the interactions of iconic animals. But unlike the worlds of Calvino or Aesop, Meehan’s world wasn’t simply described — it was made to operate. In fact, its operation, rather than its description, was Meehan’s primary work. (The text describing the world was produced by a bare-bones language generation program, called Mumble, designed primarily to fit in the small amount of memory left on the Yale AI lab’s computer system when Tale-Spin was already running.)
In 1981 a simplified version of Tale-Spin was published as part of the book Inside Computer Understanding: Five Programs Plus Miniatures. This version, Micro-Talespin, was then translated into Common Lisp (a programming language used in many artificial intelligence projects) by Warren Sack in 1992. It includes the settings for five default stories, simple text output from Micro-Mumble, and also the ability to interact with the simulated world. The ELO website now hosts Sack’s version, which requires that the computer running it have Common Lisp installed. GNU CLISP is an implementation of Common Lisp that works on Unix, MacOS, and Windows machines. To experience Micro-Talespin, start Common Lisp, load Micro-Talespin, and then, at the “?” prompt, type: (micro-talespin-demo *story1*). Next, try starting up with one of the other five stories.