Cyborg Writing: A Botnik Primer

I’ve gotten used to describing my work with Botnik Studios as “predictive text comedy.” But the conversation tends to stall out at the inevitable follow up of “what is that exactly?” I’ve been working at Botnik for over a year, and I still struggle to succinctly express what it is we do. So in the interest of making small talk easier for me, and to give an explanation of what goes on behind the scenes here, I’m going to share my experience as a writer at Botnik Studios and walk through the life of a Botnik project from conception to release.

First, some background. The tool we use the most is our in-house tool Voicebox, a predictive text keyboard. Think of your phone’s predictive text bar, which mixes a general database of common word sequences with a growing knowledge of your personal word choices. Voicebox is like that but souped up and specific to any writing style we want. All Voicebox needs is a text file to start with then it is able to give you predictive suggestions based on that file. Where your phone keyboard gives you three suggestions, Voicebox gives you anywhere from 12 to 32.

A look at the Dr. Cox keyboard we used for Scrubs

I tend to think of Voicebox as a robotic writing partner. You can sort of imagine it speaking to you “after that word, here are the words I like to use.” and if I don’t like anything Voicebox suggests I don’t have to use them. Unlike your traditional blank page, Voicebox is responsive. It reacts to my creative choices and in turn gives me things to react to. It’s collaborative writing, just with an algorithm instead of a person.

Scrubs: A case study

My first pitched project was this predictive text Scrubs script. Let’s take a look at all the steps that went into creating and releasing it.

All of Botnik’s predictive text project starts with the source text. Voicebox needs text to run. I was lucky enough to find a database online that had scripts for most episodes of Scrubs, broken down by character. However before we could use these we had to ‘scrape’ every script from the website and then split them up by character. Botnik has an intrepid and resourceful group of programmers who are able to scrape and divide text with ease. Soon, we had our raw materials in a folder of text files: one for each character and one for the stage directions.

Once I had text files for each major character and stage directions, I was able to make Voicebox keyboards with them. I brought these keyboards to the larger Botnik Studios team so we could start writing. We call writing sessions like this “jams”, as in “On Tuesday we are going to jam on the Scrubs keyboards.” Writing jams at Botnik are free-for-alls. Every member of Studios is welcome to submit as many or as few lines as they wish, and to vote on the submissions of everyone else.

We use a simple voting platform called wodehouse to organize line submissions from our writers.

Writing, especially in the beginning, is done totally free-form, heedless of what the end product may look like. Structure comes later. This divergence from a typical writing workflow is important because it encourages writers to work with the keyboard and follow where it takes them rather than trying to force the keyboard to create a specific kind of line for a specific situation. More guided writing occurs towards the end of a writing project, to fill any holes that we don’t have submitted lines for.

As the lead editor for the Scrubs script, it was my job to piece together something that made some semblance of sense out of the lines we had all written. The editing phase for a Botnik project is as much writing as the writing phase is. This is where the story and structure is created. It’s like a writing puzzle: Here are 100+ lines of dialogue and stage directions. There is a structure here somewhere. Find it.

It helps to have a starting point, a line you know you want to include. From there you can sort of build around it until the general structure of your script takes shape. For me, this was Dr. Cox saying “I’m a doctor! Hell, I care about the gallbladder.” Anchor lines like this become various scenes. As I’m putting the script together I’m constantly going back to the master list of lines, and trying to figure out ways to incorporate as many of the excellent lines that were written as possible.

Unfortunately, some fantastic lines just don’t fit, and some scenes call for lines that haven’t been written yet. Depending on how much additional writing is needed, the piece’s editor will either use the appropriate character keyboards to write new lines, or run a more targeted jam with a small group of writers to generate the kind of lines they need. I did a combination of both for Scrubs.

At this point I had a rough draft to show to the rest of Botnik. Most changes needed were minor with one exception: I’d left out a crucial component of any Scrubs episode, JD’s closing monologue! Luckily there were some excellent JD Narration lines I’d wanted to use and hadn’t found a space for and those serviced as scaffolding for additional JD Narration lines I wrote to fill in the rest. Here’s Zach Braff reading that closing monologue. I believe the Dr. Tapioca line was the last thing I wrote.

A.I. and the Media

It is possible that in the last year you’ve read an article claiming a project like the Scrubs script was “written by an AI.” My reaction to those articles is always mixed. On one hand, “A.I. Writes New Harry Potter Chapter” is a much more straightforward headline than “Comedians Use Predictive Text Keyboards Trained On Harry Potter Books To Write New Chapter.” Unless the reader knows what a predictive text keyboard is, the second headline doesn’t explain much. On the other, “created by AI” takes credit away from a lot of talented humans and ascribes it entirely to technology that doesn’t exist (yet).

But despite what the press says, human writers were involved with this project at every step. That is not to say it could have been written by humans alone; the algorithmic tools we use are as crucial a part of the process as the people using them are. The result is something that neither people nor computers could have made on their own. Only a cyborg hive of human and machine components could have made this, and that’s what Botnik Studios is.

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tl; dr: Here is a predictive text summary of this very essay, written using Voicebox.

With the Scrubs on one hand and people using a tool on the other, Botnik Studios is a text project. I was just a novelty until the inevitable situation of Botnik Studios called on me to release a robotic sense of worrying to the media. We use predictive text to find the appropriate explanation of what is going on behind Harry Potter’s gallbladder.

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Jonah Cooper is a writer/editor for Botnik Studios. Based out of Chicago Il, he also has a twitter