Monday, 26 November 2012

Electric Authors of the Future: Who or What Will be Writing Novels in 2112? By Rosalie Warren

 
I'm currently enjoying my first foray into writing science fiction for adults. As I try to imagine what life will be like a hundred years from now, along with some of the wonderful things that computers might be able to do by then, I can't help wondering... who will be the writers of 2112?

I'd like to think that people not so very different from ourselves will still be wrestling with characters, plots and dialogue. But I have a strong suspicion that we may have a bit of competition by that time - from electric authors of a different kind.

Never, never, never, I hear some of you cry. A computer or a robot will never be able to produce anything that stands up as a work of literature. At best, a parody, perhaps. Something written to a formula, controlled by strict parameters. Fan fiction? But never, never, anything that might considered original or (heaven forbid) win a major literary prize.

Of course, there could be a market for the type of books I've mentioned above. The author tired of writing yet more tales about the same character to meet public demand could perhaps feed some specifications for Book No 19 into a computer program, which would do it for her and save her the effort of writing yet another book. Or her publishers could do it. Or the readers could buy the program and create the books for themselves... (there'll be plenty of work for the lawyers, no doubt).

A computer program has already produced a novel loosely based on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina - though the excerpt given here does not in any way entice me to read on. (Having said that, neither do the opening lines of many human-written books on the library and bookshop shelves!)

I recently came across a program that generates novels, novellas, stories, etc. It is being developed by Professor Philip Parker of the business school INSEAD. His explanation is a little long-winded, to say the least, but if you can't be bothered to listen to it all, the gist is that it allows you to specify the genre(s) of your book, its theme, its title, its main characters, its approximate length and its setting in time and place. You can also choose the writing style, the point of view, the voice - and, should you wish, the colour of your hero's eyes. You can even select the shape of your plot from a number of rather fetching graphs. Oh yes, and you can ask the program to generate your book in any format you choose, including mobi and epub.

I'm already feeling lazy, just thinking about it. Rather than struggle on with the final third of my novel, should I tear up what I've done and just feed my specifications into the program? (It even controls your language - you can set it, for example, in 1925 and it won't allow you to include any words that weren't in use back then.)    

Hmmm. I'm one of those writers whose stories and characters tend to develop as I write, so I don't see this program, as it stands, being a lot of use to me. Now if, on the other hand, it could publicise my book, find readers and get them to write reviews - that might begin to appeal...

Back to reality, or thereabouts. As someone who used to be a researcher in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, I do not think the idea of computer programs one day being able to generate readable books is beyond the bounds of possibility. I was involved in a research programme (still underway at the University of Birmingham), to model the way that human beings understand metaphors, and to try to build a computer program that does something similar. 

It was once thought that a computer could never beat a grand master at chess - then, back in 1998, it happened. Yes, of course, chess uses rules, and creative writing is rather different. But computers can already compose pieces of music in the style of well-known composers - pieces that, I'm told, music lovers actually enjoy.

Creativity is a mystery - but so are sight, hearing, memory and many other processes, until you begin to understand the neural mechanisms involved.

I think it's an open question, whether a computer program will ever produce a book that's good enough to pass the Turing Test - i.e. to convince a reader that it was written by a human being. And it's a question that may well be answered in our lifetimes.

What do you think? And would you want to read a computer-generated book?

Best wishes,
Ros

My blog
My website
My Facebook author page
My alter ego, Dr Sheila Glasbey 
Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren   
  
 



 

 





9 comments:

Lee said...

I'm already convinced that many of the books I've tried to read have been generated by computers ... badly!

Seriously, though, isn't the underlying question about the likelihood of AI?

Rosalie Warren said...

Yes, that's my expereince too!

AI is all around us already, to a degree. How far it will go (can go, should go...) - these are open questions, yes. Understanding natural language is one of the hardest problems in AI - possibly the hardest one of all.

Susan Price said...

I hope someone's working on that programme to find readers, ask for reviews, and publicise the book!
I think it's quite possible to envisage a computer-written book. But...
One of the most mysterious things about writing is the way mood can be conveyed through the written word, despite it having passed through editing, and transformation into a digital or paper book. Despite that, a reader can read the words and FEEL how involved the original writer was. If the writer was bored and going through the motions, the reader feels it. If the writer was intense, the reader feels it.
A computer could be programmed to produce perfect prose, a perfect plot - but heart-felt intensity? It could imitate it - like the computer written songs in 1984 - and it would fool some of the people some of the time.
Is Art about perfection? Discuss, on one side of the pixel only.

Lee said...

Considering your academic background, I'm fascinated by what you may do/are doing with your adult SF novel. Any excerpts available? When will it be finished?

Lee said...

Good points, Susan. Energy & intensity, indeed! And as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as perfection in art (ahem, I would be likely to say that, wouldn't I?). There's only the drive for perfection.

madwippitt said...

You would have thought, wouldn't you, that having used a computer to generate a book, it would have more suitably been published digitally rather than on paper?!

Rosalie Warren said...

Susan, those are every good points. A computer/robot/AI that did not 'feel' could only ever imitate - and I would not feel happy reading a novel written by such a 'pretender', however well it was done. For me, good writing has to come from the heart.

But to address Lee's query here, too - I believe the question of whether computers (or some descendant of them) will one day be able to experience emotions is an open one. There are wide-ranging views among experts (philosophers, scientists, theologians...) on this matter and personally I am far from sure. My book, to be called 'Lena's Nest', will explore these questions, among others, such as the nature of consciousness, identity and 'self'. It will also look at the ethics of developing intelligent software. And I hope it will also be romantic, funny and accessible (I like a challenge! :-) ). It's currently in 2nd draft so excerpts may be available to interested readers by spring of next year, all being well.

Madwippitt - yes! Though I'm pleased to say that paper books will still be around, for those who like them, in 2112 (in my novel, at least...)

Susan Price said...

An AI that has genuine emotions! - That's a fascinating area to explore! What would its relationship to human society be? Would people be able to buy their perfect romantic partner - and would they love them if they could? Mind-boggling!
It reminds me of something I read about the dichotomy we often make between emotion and logic (It's not logical, Captain) being a complete dead-end, as there is no such division. Our reasoning is emotional, inescapably so, because we can't escape our bodies, glands, hormones etc.
Which raises the question - is there any point in creating an artificial, emotional intelligence? Wouldn't we better served by an unemotional intelligence which could sort us out?

Rosalie Warren said...

Sue, you will have to read my book :-)

I agree with what you say about our reasoning being inescapably emotional. In fact, some theories suggest that emotions provide a 'window' on what is going on in the unconscious part of our brains and as such are a vital part of the reasoning process.

Even supposing it is possible to create intelligence without emotion - would it be useful in 'sorting us out'? Wouldn't the AI need to feel our emotions in order to be of any use? (Ever been told by a well-meaning but unempathetic adviser to 'stop worrying' about your kids?)

I tend to believe that emotions will develop inevitably in an intelligent system that is allowed to 'evolve', whether it is based on carbon (as of course we are) on silicon, or whatever.

By the way, the 'robots' in my book do not like to be called robots and would also strongly object to being 'bought'. You would have to have to win their love, as you would that of a carbon-based human! And by that time, it will not always be easy to tell the two types of human being apart, at least not at first glance. Many carbon-based humans will have bodies that have been at least partially replaced by artificial substitutes.

(Enough - I'm giving my plot away :-) )