Computers as Authors? Literary Luddites Unite!
By DANIEL AKST
Published: November 22, 2004
For some people, writing a novel is a satisfying exercise in self-expression. For me, it's a hideous blend of psychoanalysis and cannibalism that is barely potent enough to overcome a series of towering avoidance mechanisms - including my own computer. Writers and computers nowadays are locked in such an enduringly dysfunctional embrace that it can be hard to tell us apart. We both rely heavily on memory, for instance. We are both calculating, complex and crash-prone. And like Hebrew National hot dogs, we both seem to answer to a higher power: writers, according to Plato, were divinely inspired; computers have Bill Gates.
Occasionally you hear of a Luddite novelist who shuns computers, but the truth is that most of us would be lost without them. If I rail and curse at mine, it is partly out of resentment at our miserable co-dependence. Imagine, then, the blow to my scribbler's vanity when I discovered a while back that computers might get along just fine without writers.
This is not science fiction. With little fanfare and (so far) no appearances at Barnes & Noble, computers have started writing without us scribes. They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out - even those not in master of fine arts programs. Consider the beginning of a short story dealing with the theme of betrayal:
"Dave Striver loved the university - its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one's dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving."
That pregnant opening paragraph was written by a computer program known as Brutus.1 that was developed by Selmer Bringsjord, a computer scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and David A. Ferrucci, a researcher at I.B.M.
Or consider this sensitive reinterpretation of a literary classic:
"The road to grandmother's house led through the dark forest, but Little Red Riding Hood was not afraid and she went on as happy as a lark. The birds sang her their sweetest songs while the squirrels ran up and down the tall trees. Now and then, a rabbit would cross her path."
What you just read is the work of StoryBook, "an end-to-end narrative prose generation system that utilizes narrative planning, sentence planning, a discourse history, lexical choice, revision, a full-scale lexicon and the well-known Fuf/Surge surface realizer." Believe it or not, that description was written not by a computer but by the humans who created StoryBook, Charles B. Callaway and James C. Lester, who are computer scientists.
That no computer has yet written the Great American Novel may be because computers are subject to some of the same handicaps that afflict human writers. First, writing is hard! Although computers can work unhindered by free will, bourbon or divorce, such advantages are outweighed by a lack of life experience or emotions. Second, and all too familiar to living writers of fiction, there is no money in it. Unable to teach creative writing or marry rich, computers have to depend on research grants. And why would anyone pay for a computer to do something that humans can still do better for peanuts?
Still, what has been accomplished so far is scary enough, and surely there is more to come, thanks to rapid advances in computing power and the rise of "narratology" (how stories are told) as an academic field of study, among other unwholesome trends that are making the novelist's life ever more perilous.