Artificial intelligence can already generate artwork, write poetry and create realistic portraits of people who don’t actually exist. So what’s next for San Francisco’s buzziest emerging technology?
How about remaking Seinfeld? Enter Nothing, Forever—an endless, trippy and distinctly absurd parody of the iconic 1990s sitcom—generated by AI.
Broadcast 24/7 over the streaming platform Twitch, Nothing uses OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model and a proprietary “director” technology to create a continuous series of lo-fi, animated vignettes about … nothing. The online series has been running since December but went viral Tuesday.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of—if you’re like me—a person who has spent the past several months trying to induce OpenAI’s chatbot to write new episodes of Seinfeld on a series of increasingly inappropriate and grotesque subjects.
But as I tuned into Nothing, Forever, I realized the dream had elements of a nightmare.
Nothing features four main characters roughly reminiscent of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer—recast as Larry Feinberg, Fred Kastopolous, Yvonne Torres and Zoltan Kakler—and is mostly set in its protagonists' respective apartments.
In keeping with Seinfeld’s “show about nothing” ethos, the dialogue focuses on the absurd minutiae of daily life and occasionally drifts into the realm of the truly philosophical. The short episodes begin with a scene of Jerry—ahem, Larry—doing a dad joke-heavy standup routine. It even has a laugh track.
While that may sound impressive to Seinfeld fans, the final product is lo-fi, robotic and, often, unfunny. But its creators believe Nothing, Forever is more than a joke: Rather, it represents an important step on the path to new “generative media.”
Nothing, Forever began four years ago, when co-creator Brian Habersberger, a materials scientist, approached his friend Skyler Hartle, a senior product manager at Microsoft, with the idea to create a “generative show based on the idea of nothingness” that would parody 1990s sitcoms, Hartle told The Standard.
There was one problem: The technology just wasn’t there yet.
Machine learning was still nascent, and OpenAI didn’t offer the kinds of services it does now. Hartle and Habersberger had to figure out much of the “generative stuff” on their own, Hartle explained.
“It’s been a funny four years, because the technology has moved really fast,” he said.
Nothing, Forever uses OpenAI’s GPT-3—the technology behind its popular ChatGPT chatbot—to generate the script viewers hear on the show. The voices come from Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services. And Hartle and Habersberger have their own unique technology—they call it “generative direction”—that pulls together the narrative, dialogue and voiceover, defines the scene lengths, and generates the instructions for that scene.
The one thing that isn’t generated by AI? The characters and scenery.
“Honestly that decision came from the fact that nothing existed to generate that kind of stuff at the time,” Hartle said.
The results are pretty weird. Nothing, Forever may be the perfect metaphor for AI in 2023: It’s capable of remarkable things, but still has a long way to go.
I WAS WATCHING THE INFINITE AI GENERATED SEINFELD STREAM AND WHAT THE FUCK LMAO pic.twitter.com/QfNFNOHjJI— the j (@queenbiscuit311) February 2, 2023
“Do you think when we die, that’s it? Or do you think there might be something else after this life?” the balding, bespectacled character Fred asks in one clip shared on Twitter.
“Well, Fred, I’m more of a scientist than a philosopher, so I can’t say for sure. But If I had to guess, there’s probably something more out there,” Larry answers. “Who knows? All I’m sure of is that death is just the beginning of something more mysterious and wonderful.”
As Larry philosophizes, Fred swims across the living room in something resembling a glitchy, contorted side-stroke before disappearing into the turquoise couch.
the AI generated endless seinfeld is kinda starting to get the hang of it pic.twitter.com/odv8qalav4— jocelyn romo (@theeroamer) February 2, 2023
In another, the characters discuss a person who hates fruit.
“Maybe he was trying to be edgy or something,” Zoltan says. “Or maybe he has a secret fruit allergy.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” Larry replies, as the other characters robotically stumble over the furniture. “Maybe he just doesn’t know how to enjoy the sweet and juicy …”
Cue laugh track.
“Or he could just be a ‘fruitophobe,’” he adds.
No laugh track.
I am a devoted—some would say obsessive—fan of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I’ve spent much of my life preaching the gospel of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer among adherents to the church of Friends. Like many a missionary, I converted a woman from Friends to Seinfeld and married her. References to the Soup Nazi, the big salad and, ahem, “the contest” are a regular feature of our life.
To me, Nothing, Forever isn’t Seinfeld.
Rather, it resembles “The Bizarro Jerry,” an episode where Elaine falls in with a group of men who are her friends’ polar opposites: They treat people well, have healthy boundaries and enjoy spending their time reading at the library. It’s the “bizarro world.”
Similarly, Larry, Fred and company may resemble the Seinfeld cast, but their robotic lack of edginess and non-sequitur-filled, almost Dadaistic dialogue is at best a simulacrum.
But Hartle thinks there are bigger, better things on Nothing, Forever’s horizon.
He and Habersberger—who call themselves Mismatch Media—believe their technology and idea will have more applications in the future. It may even constitute a new form of media.
“As we were going through the process of creating it very early on, we realized that there was a ton of potential in the concept of generative media,” he said.
Hartle believes we’re a lot closer to having a product like Nothing, Forever that is less nonsensical and more realistic. Even under the current technological limitations, his team could have improved upon the show if it had more resources.
“If anything, I hope that Nothing, Forever showcased that it's possible to take all these component pieces and create a new type of media like this,” he said, “and that even better versions of this are just around the corner.”
Matthew Kupfer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org