Center for Digital Narrative

ERC wants to see what shapes the stories AI tells us

Professor Jill Walker Rettberg receives an ERC Advanced Grant to see how narrative archetypes influence the future of artificial intelligence.

Jill Walker Rettberg
Eivind Senneset, UiB/CDN

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Professor Jill Walker Rettberg, co-director of the Centre for Digital Narrative at the University of Bergen, is awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for the project AI STORIES. This is Rettberg's second ERC Grant.

“The AI STORIES project builds on the premise that storytelling is central to human culture, with narratives shaping our understanding of the world. We will study artificial intelligence and how it creates new narratives,” says Rettberg.

Generative AI has been dubbed a “stochastic parrot”, mimics of language patterns who doesn't really understand what they are saying. AI STORIES posits that the large language models (LLMs) which form the foundations for ChatGPT are more influenced by deep narrative structures than previously recognized. To manage AI bias, we need to consider the underlying narratives in the training data and not just proximity of words and images.

When Microsoft's AI chatbot expressed its love for a journalist in 2023, was it really in love? Most likely not. Generative AI is, after all, a statistical game, and not actual feelings. This new research will test the hypothesis that the AI said “I love you” because it is trained on so many of our sci-fi stories where AI gains conscience and human emotions.

Petter Helgesen og Benedicte Løseth i Forskingsrådet overleverer SFF-plakett til senterleiarane Scott Rettberg og Jill Walker Rettberg.

The Center for Digital Narrative opened in 2023, and will house research projects with grants from ERC, The Research Council of Norway, and the Trond Mohn Research Foundation, among others.

Jessie van Balkom

AI stories are our stories, but to what end?

Earlier Rettberg has talked about how AI can replace or homogenise stories from certain storytelling traditions, like the Norwegian childrens' story When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town:

"This story is more than a shared cultural reference – it supports the Norwegian criminal justice system’s priority of rehabilitation over punishment. It is distinct from Disney movies, with their unambiguous villains who are punished at the end, and from Hollywood bank heists and gangster movies that glorify criminals.”

The project will conduct case studies on Scandinavian, Australian, and Indian or Nigerian narratives, contrasting them with the dominant American and English-speaking narratives in LLMs.

“Generative AI might well bury stories like Cardamom Town by stuffing chatbot responses and search results worldwide with homogenized American narratives,” says Rettberg.

A new narratology for AI

“I think what we need is a new narratology, to see how narrative theory shapes and can be used when we develop and use AI,” says Rettberg.

The new narratology will inform policymakers, developers, and educators on the future direction of AI. Current LLMs has mainly been developed by computer scientists and linguists, but Rettberg posits that narratologists should perhaps be just as important to the AI future.

Rettberg and her colleagues will cooperate with developer industry and developer communities.

50th ERC grant to UiB

“Jill is extremely competent in her field, and we are particularily proud that she has managed to achieve success while she has built an exeptional research group,” says Camilla Brautaset, Dean at the Faculty of Humanities.

Brautaset says Rettberg gives this an extra dimension by showing how relevant and topical humanities kan be, even though Advanced Grants are for basic research.

“I congratulate Jill Walker Rettberg, who solidifies her position at the top of her field, demonstrating both quality and originality. Her achievements serve as an inspiration for others at UiB,” says Rector Margareth Hagen.

With Rettberg's project, researchers at the University of Bergen have so far secured a total of 50 ERC grants spanning the period from 2010 to 2024. The Rector underscores the sustained commitment to fostering strong applications and successful implementation of ERC projects over several years, with plans for continued efforts:

“I would also like to thank the researchers, managers, and the exceptionally skilled support staff at UiB who have worked hard to make this happen. These good results are inspiring, and we are working systematically to get more people to apply for ERC funding in the years ahead,” she concludes.

1 of 255 among 1829 – strong competition

Rettberg is among the 255 selected outstanding research leaders in Europe to receive this grant, according to a press release from the ERC.

The competition attracted 1,829 proposals which were reviewed by panels of internationally renowned researchers. The funding is amongst the EU’s most prestigious and competitive, providing leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

The new grants are part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme.