Will Robots Write the Next Great Novel?

Anyone over the age of 30 can’t help but notice how technology has crept into our lives. It begins by being an anomaly, then a convenience, and finally, a necessity. I learned to type in year nine on a manual typewriter. The kind that requires a powerful physical stab of one’s finger at each key as you force the machine to propel a metal rod up to strike the paper. In year ten, we had already progressed to electric typewriters. Still requiring a lot of force by today’s standards, we had to learn to control our strong fingers lest we trigger too many key strikes with each press. The year after that my family got our first personal computer and everything changed. Now, I can’t imagine having to use a manual typewriter or *gasp* writing a book by hand! But that was the norm less than forty years ago.

Today, we have all manner of wordprocessors and computerized writing aids to allow us to optimize our writing style, whatever it may be. Our computers are fast and powerful. We have smart phones — powerful pocket computers — that have millions of times more storage space and processing power than the first personal computer my family had at only a fraction of the cost. And people have written novels using these wonders while on their commute home.

Now, however, we're entering a time of science fiction reality as we develop and quickly improve artificial intelligence. I was still in university when the first computer, Deep Blue, beat the world’s top chess master. It took almost twenty years from that point to create an AI (Alpha Go) that could beat a professional Go player. In a few short years following that, AI (Alpha Go Zero - named because it trained with no human data) has advanced to an almost undefeatable level after mastering Chess, Shogi, and Go within 24 hours.

But games aren’t really that difficult to master, are they? They all have a very clear set of rules that a computer simply has to apply while determining the most effective use of those rules (strategy) to win. A computer could never do something like create a beautiful piece of art or music, or write a novel. Could it? A computer won't write the next great novel, will it?

Well, probably not the next one, but only because humans have a head start. Given the rate of development of artificial intelligence (AI) however, it seems only a matter of time until one does write a great novel.
Not everyone believes that and the debate typically settles over the question of creativity, the certain intangible qualities humans imbue their creations with, leading many to ask, ‘Can computers do art?’

You likely have your own answer for that, but before you settle yourself down on one side of the fence or the other, a little experiment. Have a look at these creative examples and decide which are your favourites and note whether the images come from the top panel or the bottom panel.

Next, see if you can guess which poem was written by a computer. I’ll let you know the creators of both art and writing at the end of the article.

However, if you want to try some while-you-wait computer-generated music, check out www.ampermusic.com

Finally, I’ll just mention that in 2016 a Japanese competition for science fiction shortlisted a short story written by an AI. The comments were that it was surprisingly well written, although there were problems with characterization. Here is the eerie ending:
“I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.”
So, how close is AI to challenging human authors?

Alan Turing famously devised the Turing Test for determining whether machines exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to humans. When applied to literary fiction, the test were expressed something like this:

The soft test would be passed if humans cannot tell whether the creation was human or computer generated.

The hard test would be passed when humans can’t tell who created it and they’d actually buy it to read.

Well, from the examples above examples above, which are now several years old, it seems clear we are quickly approaching a successful pass of the soft test. When that is accomplished, it can only be a matter of time until the hard test is also passed. When that happens, what will it mean for human authors?

The good? Fiction has room for many, many authors, stories, and ideas. It’s highly likely human originality will outstrip computers for some time yet. For better or worse, the AI will probably enter the market as software to speed up your story writing. It may also make for flexible or customized stories depending on reader variables. Your story could read slightly different for each reader. This could be the next evolution in fiction writing.

The bad? When AI enters the market, get ready for the next big shake-up of the publishing industry. The potential flood of fiction will mean the bottom will drop out of the fiction market as we currently know it and novel prices will plummet (and they're already pretty low!). A timeline? If it takes twenty years, I’ll be surprised.

So, with that doom and gloom scenario, why should we continue to write?

There are several answers to that. One is that AI will likely write like someone from a culture we've never heard of with themes and topics we haven't read before, or not in the same way. Bringing AI to the marketplace may just open up a new genre. Another answer, that almost any author will give instantly is that we will continue to write because the stories within won’t let us do anything else. Authors have to write, the stories in their heads won't let them live in peace otherwise. All of us have examples of interrupting day jobs to scribble down story ideas, waking from dreams in the middle of the night to jot down vivid scenes before we forget them. Our stories are part of us and they want us to give them life. That’s why there will always be humans creating stories, regardless of how fast computers can do it. It’s just who we are.

And who I am is Edwin H Rydberg, a futurist and a science fiction author. You can find out more about me and me writing at www.alternatefutures.co.uk

As for the artistic works shown earlier, the creators are:
The top panel of images are by the following humans: Paintings from Art Basel 2016 used in the experiment, with works, in order, by: Richard Caldicott (2003), Jigger Cruz (2016), Leonardo Drew (2015), Cenk Akaltun (2015), Lang Li (2014), Xuerui Zhang (2015), David Smith (1956), Kelu Ma (1989), Xie Nanxing (2013), Panos Tsagaris (2015), Heimo Zobernig (2014), Zao Wou-Ki (1958), Andy Warhol (1985), David Smith (1956), Wei Ligang (2014), KONG Chun Hei (2016), Ye Yongqing (2015) Wei Ligang (2010), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xuerui Zhang (2016), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xu Zhenbang (2015), Xuerui Zhang (2016), Zao Wou-Ki (1963) 
The bottom set of images were made by AI at Rutgers University’s Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. 
The first poem was written by a computer, the second by a human.


Susan Price said…
Fascinating article, Edwin -- thanks.

And - honestly! - I correctly identified the robot work without much difficulty. I don't care for any of the art much, but the robots' stuff is pretty-prettier, more simplistic and all much the same.

With the poems, the robot doesn't scan very well and the words are someone's idea of what a poem should be, without much sincerity or 'life'. The human poem scans, so there was a sensitive human ear listening to its rhythms. It flows, is witty, ironic and - well - human. (Is it yours?)

Which doesn't mean that I don't believe you about the rise of robot writers. I think it's pretty much inevitable. I think at first robot art will be all the rage -- and then it will become machine-made stuff for the plebs. Those able to afford it will demonstrate their taste and refinement by buying limited edition, highly expensive 'real artisan books' and 'artisan greeting cards' and so on. The return of patronage to art?
Bill Kirton said…
I'd suggest that the most obvious thing that distinguishes the human from the computer version in the 2 poems is something I'm always banging on about - rhythm, which never gets enough attention in creative writing workshops. I was delighted to read an interview with the actor Stephen Rea in today’s Observer. When being directed by Beckett in Endgame, he said ‘Beckett gave me two groundbreaking notes. I asked him what a line meant and he said: “Don’t think about meaning, think about rhythm.”’
Griselda Heppel said…
Yes, the poem question was easy. The art took me longer as I didn't like either of the panels much (and of course felt a complete philistine when reading who all the artists were!). Forced to choose, I settled on a couple in the upper panel so at least wasn't seduced by all that colourful robot stuff.

BUT you point out that these questions are already years old, so no doubt computers have got much cleverer in the meantime. Arggh! I just can't see myself wanting to read computer-written books but who knows? I can imagine them succeeding best in specific genres eg 'airport read' thrillers, in so many of which characterisation is already given such low priority that they may as well have been written by computers. Ooh, perhaps they have!

Intriguing post, thank you.
Rosalie Warren said…
Great post, Edwin - and good to see another AI-interested person in this group. I think it's very much an open question as to what AI will eventually achieve, but it's one that bothers me quite a lot, for all kinds of ethical and other reasons.

I will look for your books - and you may be interested in my 'Lena's Nest', which explores some of these issues.
zahid ali said…
Thank you! I needed to hear this. I thought I wasn’t doing enough. So now I will just focus on my writing (about inverter)
Umberto Tosi said…
Fascinating pose, Edwin! You nailed it at the end when you wrote "that AI will likely write like someone from a culture we've never heard of with themes and topics we haven't read before, or not in the same way." Beyond the Turing Test: Truly original, creative AI would emerge from an intelligence that is capable not just of simulating human writing, but of writing originally from the AI entity's experience of self and the world - expressing its perceptions of self, existential ironies, desires (if any), regrets, disappointments, journeys of imagination. This AI form would not replace human writing in any sense, but become a literature of its own - perhaps crossing paths with human writings, but distinct in itself. Then we'll know we've passed through the vaunted singularity and find out what's down that rabbit hole.

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