Beyond the Fence

If artificial intelligence were a college student, we would currently describe it as being in its "artist phase." AI systems have been penning erotica, creating new types of images and writing song lyrics. Now, the machines are after musical theater.

Beyond the Fence, the world's first computer-generated musical, is set to open in London in late February. It chronicles the story of Mary and her daughter George who've been living in a peace camp for a year, protesting U.S. cruise missiles. It's a story about "conviction, unity, and love," according to the producers.


“It is a mad experiment,” producer Catherine Gale told The Guardian. “No one has ever done it before and we really didn’t know what was going to happen when we started.”

Beyond the Fence began "as an experiment, with researchers delving into what makes a good musical, from production and story to music and lyrics," according to a description of the project on its YouTube page. "Scientists then used their findings to fine-tune computational systems for music, story and lyrics which would in turn help create a brand new musical."


The process of its creation is being documented for a British TV show called "Computers Says Show."

The final creation is a Frankenstein created by various AI projects based in Europe. At Cambridge University's Machine Learning Group, scientists analyzed factors, like cast size, setting and genre, that influence a musical's success. University of London's What-If Machine—software that aims to invent fictional ideas for everything from stories to ads—helped in generating some of the narrative's central characters and themes. The plot was "created" by software from the Complutense University of Madrid, appropriately dubbed PropperWryter, and the lyrics for the show were the work of Cloud Lyricist, a recurrent neural network.


Beware, ticket buyers. As you might be able to make out in the photograph below, the machine's musings aren't very good on first reading. The first sentence reads: "On a reporter favorite who has made a career of a crime the last end of a place that disappeared with all the words that could see to anyone never let me in an underwear song when they remember."

It's non-sensical. Taking that gibbering and translating it into stage-ready songs that move the soul (or that at least make logical sense) is where the humans come in.

Cloud Lyricist, the program used to generate Beyond the Fence lyrics.
Sky Arts TV

This isn't the first time computers have been tasked with figuring out the recipe of what makes an artistic work successful. Vault, an Israeli AI company, says it's developed algorithms that can predict whether a movie will be a blockbuster or a bust with up to 70% accuracy, just by "reading" the script. According to Business Insider, the company's secret sauce "hinges on an intensive analysis of 300,000 to 400,000 story 'features,' which can be things like themes or level of violence." The software also takes into account actors' star power.


Last month, the band Years & Years released a music video animated with the help of an artificial intelligence, and it's stunning:

And earlier in November, Weather Anomaly released a music video of its own with similar computer-generated illustrations.

All of these projects are part of a growing movement called computational creativity. While the results have been promising, human artists probably don't need to be worried about being put out of work by machines yet.


Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter