Robot Authors Are Coming For Your Prizes, As Soon As They Learn To Write

Don't hold your breath.

05/04/2016 10:35 PM AEST | Updated 05/04/2016 10:35 PM AEST
Mimi Haddon via Getty Images
Is a robot like this the next Jonathan Franzen? Probably not.

Last week, the robots finally came for that which we humans hold most dear: Our ability to write the Great [insert country or region here] Novel.

The Japan News reported, and various American outlets picked up, the news that a short novel co-written by a computer program and homo sapiens had almost won a literary prize. The prize, the Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award, accepts entries written by robots, though this was reportedly the first year that any such entries had been submitted. Of several submissions written with AI programs, one entry scored a remarkable victory: It made it through a single round of screening.

Out of four rounds.

Okay, so “nearly won,” as Bustle put it, might be a slight exaggeration of how well this artificial novelist performed. Maybe we should say “almost made it to the third round,” or “just barely didn’t come in last.” For a book crafted by the robotic intellect of a computer program, however, even such a small success shows a stunning facility with language and narrative.

Of course, there’s just one teeeeny weeny little other detail: The novel was, as mentioned above, “cowritten” by the AI program and a natural intelligence program: human brains. According to The Japan News:

Humans decided the parameters for the novel, such as the plot and gender of characters. The AI program then “wrote” the novel by selecting words or sentences prepared by humans and in accordance with the parameters, according to the team.

According to The Asahi Shimbun, the source material was actually a "sample" novel written by humans, broken down into parts for the program to repurpose into a similar work. Cool! So the robot novelist totally wrote the book, except for the plot, and the plot details, and the words, and the sentences the words were made out of. Humans wrote those -- about 80 percent of the actual work, according to a professor involved in the effort. But that’s a minor contribution, compared to the much more important task of picking pre-written words and sentences to fill out a pre-written plot outline.

As the Los Angeles Times put it, “the computers did the hard work.” Anyone can write “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” -- it takes a real artist to fill out a book-length MadLibs!

In a slightly more skeptical take on Slate, Jacob Brogan pointed out that literary algorithms might be able to remix and repurpose snippets of text into amusing new combinations -- he references the popular Magic Realism Bot -- but the allure tends be indivisible from the AI's lack of awareness of the reader's perspective:

Lacking a theory of mind -- a set of beliefs about what others are thinking -- these programs can’t really predict what it will be like to read their output. Accordingly, they can only work from what they already know, which means that they’re bound to be slightly incoherent without human intervention.

Or, as one of the cyborg-authored prize submissions put it, "I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement." Um ... oh boy.

So, are AI programs the new MFA grads, or is art the one remaining arena in which we can best these monsters of our own creation, which now hold the ability to defeat us at the game of Go? Who can say where artificial intelligence could take us in the years ahead? For now, though, when it comes to the arts, it's fairly safe to say that it's still MFA vs. NYC, not MFA vs. NYC vs. AI. There's just something about humanity's theory of mind that an algorithm apparently can't yet replace.

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