I’m Pretty Sure I Could Teach a Machine to Write a Novel

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“Alexa, tell me about eternal recurrence.”

There will come a day when we’re enjoying novels and stories written by artificial intelligence. I’ve starting thinking about how this might actually happen. How you feel about this idea probably reveals your particular cultural orientation. If it horrifies you to imagine computers churning out works of fiction, then you’re likely a citizen of the Gutenberg era, and you may be fuzzy on the growing capabilities of machine intelligence. If the notion of novels written by robots delights you, you might be up on the latest in AI but fuzzy on the messy, human process of creating art.

The first viable AI fiction will probably be the result of humans and machines working together. We won’t wake up one morning to discover a computer has written a bestseller. We’ll slowly merge machine intelligence and the human imagination to the point where these two things blur. In fact, we already are.

The trajectory of my writing life proceeds from pen and paper, to typewriter, to PC, to the autofill selections in text messages and my gmail account. I’ve navigated this progression with varying degrees of comfort and acceptance. I taught myself how to type and to this day just type with my thumbs and middle fingers. I adapted my writing process to machines, learned to depend on spellcheck, and have stored my stories on floppy discs and saved my drafts in the cloud.

In the mid-nineties, concerned about the incursion of technology into literature, I leaned heavily on the ideas articulated by Sven Birkert in The Gutenberg Elegies, which argues that something vitally human is lost when we move from analaog to digital modes of storytelling and communication. Birkerts’s passionate arguments did little to slow the march of technology. I expressed my ambivalence on these issues in a story called “Written by Machines,” which I wrote in 2001 as a wildly speculative scenario that strikes me today as too narrowly imagined. Nowadays, when I see the suggested responses that Google offers at the end of an email, a little part of me winces, especially when one of those responses is exactly what what I would choose to say anyway.

In coming decades we will experience a wave of shocking abdications of activities we now assume can only be accomplished by flesh and blood humans. The world’s chess masters and Alex Trebek long ago accepted that there are some intellectual tasks machines can perform faster and more accurately than humans. The history of technological development is a history of breaching lines we believe separate the human mind from the tools those minds have invented. The age of machine intelligence that is already well underway is about to shock us more than ever by colonizing the precincts of the imagination.

Awhile back, my friend the novelist Christopher Robinson introduced me to the concept of the “centaur,” a human-AI hybrid. The idea being that AIs won’t completely replace the human creator, but that humans and AIs will work together. This makes sense to me as a novelist because that’s already how novels get written, through the push-pull relationships with editors and, more broadly, a readership. Chris co-wrote his novel War of the Encyclopaedists with his friend Gavin Kovite, so he’s perhaps more open to the idea of two minds creating a work of art together than most. But every novel on your shelf, despite bearing the name of a single author, is the result of an editorial process that involves other people. The stories of Raymond Carver, it has been argued, owed as much to the scalpel of his editor, Gordon Lish, as they were products of Carver’s generous imagination.

Once you accept the notion of a story as collaborative exercise, maybe it’s just a short hop to imagining a collaboration between a person and a machine. Isn’t that what the author who pauses mid-draft to look something up on Wikipedia is already doing?

Today I had a conversation with Amber Osborne, an upstanding member of Seattle’s VR/AR community who works as Chief Marketing Officer for Meshfire, a company that developed an artificial intelligence platform for social media. I wanted to get Amber’s opinion on whether an AI could ever write a novel. She believes that this process is already underway, and mentioned a college student who developed an AI that writes his papers for him. Of course someone figured out how to do that.

But wait! My inner Sven Birkerts raises an alarm. Isn’t the point of literature to express something irreducably human? Go ahead and make that argument to all those kids who dig EDM and other genres of music generated as much by machines as by the humans who push the buttons. Human nature is under constant revision, and part of that revision is the way in which we internalize the nature of our tools.

I know a poet, a linguist, and a handful of experts on machine learning that I bet I could get into a room and hash out a process by which computers could start writing fiction. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t already happening somewhere. What will truly shock us won’t be when we’re reading books written by articifical intelligence. It will be when AIs are reading them, too.

 

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