FARGO — Before last week, Thomas Brag had never stepped foot in North Dakota. By Monday, June 14, the well-known YouTube video creator had seen a bison for the first time, watched the Medora Musical and thrown axes with Gov. Doug Burgum.
The sequence of events leading to Brag's arrival in the Peace Garden State and ultimate meeting with its top public officeholder is uniquely modern and stranger than fiction.
It all started when Brag and Eric Tabach set out for Bismarck on Thursday, June 10, under the direction of a robot "with a mind of its own."
Brag is the French co-founder of Yes Theory, a digital media brand built around a hugely popular YouTube channel with 6.7 million subscribers. In regularly uploaded "vlog"-style videos, Brag and the channel's other on-camera personalities aim to "seek discomfort," often through spontaneous trips. Tabach is a Los Angeles-based actor who recently began filming for the channel.
For their latest video, Brag and Tabach put themselves at the mercy of a complex artificial intelligence model operated by a friend with a background in software development. The computer-based language generator, GPT-3, has "absorbed the internet," Brag said, and can spit out responses informed by the information it has artificially learned when given inputs and parameters by a user.
Brag and company told the model they were YouTube producers with an emphasis on impromptu adventures and asked for video ideas.
The model delivered a series of premises for videos, many of which were "totally crazy" and impossible, Brag said. For example, one pitch said the crew should head to Myanmar, a south Asian country where political tensions are running high after a military coup deposed members of the democratically elected ruling party in February.
A much more feasible prompt told Brag and Tabach to go to the least-visited state in the country, North Dakota. The two hopped on a plane to Minneapolis that night with basically no luggage other than a camera and a microphone. When they arrived in North Dakota's capital city a few hours later, the bot told them to hitch a ride from the airport with a local subscriber to the channel.
The next day, the model offered its next mission for the duo: find the governor and get him to do something he's never tried. Undaunted by the task, Brag and Tabach began researching Burgum and discovered they could easily find common ground with the former tech executive and entrepreneur. With the help of Yes Theory's broad fanbase, Brag tracked down the governor's son, Joe. The video creators also walked into Burgum's office at the Capitol on Friday but were told the governor was out of town.
Joe and friends reached out to his father and helped the YouTubers schedule an unlikely rendezvous with Burgum on Monday in Fargo. Burgum later noted he was unsurprised the California-based creators found themselves only a few degrees of separation from the governor of a state they had never visited, saying "that's North Dakota."
With three days before the fortuitous meeting, Brag and Tabach met a kind stranger in a Bismarck bar who invited them to sleep in his home for the night and then ventured out west where they explored the bison-filled North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and saw the Medora Musical.
Finally, the pair of video makers arrived at Rough Cut Social in downtown Fargo on Monday morning where Brag and Burgum would be throwing axes for the first time. A few minutes later, Burgum emerged from a black Chevrolet Suburban wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon map of his home state. After some hand-shaking and a long conversation that flowed from topics on skydiving to carbon sequestration to Native American history, Brag and Burgum entered the venue and began learning how to throw an ax at a wooden target from resident "axpert" Jon Gapp.
The Republican governor and video creator caught on quickly, each scoring points with ease. Burgum prevailed 21-20 in a competitive match that see-sawed back and forth. The full video of the showdown will be uploaded to the Yes Theory channel in two weeks, Tabach said.
Brag said he really enjoyed seeing the state, noting it felt "like we got adopted by North Dakota." Burgum praised Brag's entrepreneurial spirit and noted that he identified with the group's mission of seeking discomfort since he took on the massive challenge of leaving the private sector and running for political office in 2016.
The governor also said getting the message out about North Dakota to the younger demographic that watches Brag's channel is "fantastic."
"People watch this channel and that's a group that we'd love to have them understand that North Dakota is a place where you can seek adventure and grow and learn," Burgum said.