Computers have been doing literary work for a while now - helping nab plagiarists, for instance - and there is even fiction-writing software for people to use, in one case complete "with 2,363 narrative situations." Professor Bringsjord meanwhile is working on a logical framework for the problem of evil, hoping a computer can write fiction on that theme next. It is hard not to worry that sooner or later computers will be monopolizing the best-seller lists rather than focusing on such worthwhile goals as producing an intelligible royalty statement.
Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they'd be very good novels by human standards."
If we don't get much good fiction out of computers, we may at least gain some wholesome new perspective on the process of creating literature. The advent of storytelling computers suggests that thinking people and thinking machines confront many of the same problems in writing fiction, even if their solutions are different. Computers have to rely on a rigorous system of logic, while human writers try to turn their disorganized natures to advantage. Our traditional emphasis on inspiration promotes a reliance on serendipity, which, in turn, helps dampen the potentially paralyzing awareness of the infinite choices available when you create a fictional world.
The economist Herbert Simon, who reminded us of the futility of trying to consider every possible alternative in a world without end, might have had in mind the budding novelist in Albert Camus's "Plague," determined to create a perfect first sentence and therefore unable to advance beyond it.
It was Simon's ideas - particularly his notion of "satisficing" - that first got me interested in fiction-writing machines. Though in theory a person shopping for new shoes could consider all the pairs on the planet, in fact, the cost is way too high - an entire life spent shoe-shopping. So in the real world we visit one or two stores, try on a few in our size and buy a pair.
Satisficing in this way - settling, or even sensing, what is good enough - is something novelists must do as well. We think of an idea and go with it because pausing to systematically consider every plot twist, character or phrase that might come next would lead nowhere. Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon's "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don't even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.
This doesn't mean nobody is trying. On the Internet, the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator (http://user.tninet.se/~ecf599g/aarda...nkey/webpages/) generates random keystrokes and matches them against a database of Shakespeare's plays. The record, last time I looked, was 21 consecutive letters and spaces from - aptly enough - "Love's Labour's Lost."
Daniel Akst's novels include "The Webster Chronicle" (Penguin) and "St. Burl's Obituary" (Harcourt).