Writers fret about many things. In fact, agonizing over something, anything, is a writer’s natural state, a condition that can feed the muse but also kill inspiration.
Writers worry about writing, of course — the quality and the quantity, the rhythm of the words and the structure of the piece. We worry about readership. We worry about the publishing industry. We worry about money.
And now we have to worry about automation. It’s quite probable that within my lifetime this mentally strenuous, nerve-wrecking, binge-inducing job of stringing words into sentences and sentences into meaning will be done by a computer.
Blasphemy! Sacrilege! That’s what I thought after reading about an artificial intelligence program that co-authored a novel for the Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award in Japan.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
True, this AI program was assisted by a team of very human computer scientists who decided on the plot and the gender of the characters and then crafted sentences for the computer to use, but it was a computer that actually wrote the book. Just like that, la-de-da.
I’ve always thought of writing as something uniquely human. After all, so much of what a reader encounters on a page is irretrievably tied to its author’s experiences, both those she has lived and those she conjures up. Algorithms have been known to duplicate many human acts, but surely they can never, never ever, express the salty taste of ocean water on a summer day or the scent of cookies baking in a mother’s kitchen. Surely?
Well, the future is here, and I’m not ready. The Day a Computer Writes A Novel was good enough to get a nod from the contest judges — a feat even the most veteran writer would love to claim. “The Day” wasn’t even the only manuscript written, in part, by a program, only the one good enough to pass muster. Of the 1,450 submissions the contest received, 11 were authored by a dang computer.
I shouldn’t be so stunned by this development. Robots have written news stories — not particularly interesting ones but usable just the same. Back in 2014, The Los Angeles Times published a story about an earthquake, written by a bot, three minutes after the quake actually happened. I felt the first tremor of insecurity then, since no writer I know can write that fast. I was relieved, however, when the program’s author assured everyone these kinds of stories weren’t meant to replace humans, only to supplement their work.
Computers have beat brilliant masters at chess and at a very complex Chinese board game named Go. Robots have made art. (Stare in open-mouth wonder at a YouTube video of Paul the Sketching Robot drawing his creator.) And they have composed songs. Maybe not to the soaring superiority of a Bach or Mozart but still…still.
What will robots do next? Love (and quarrel) as we do? Keep us company? Tend to us when we get sick or grieve? Grow bored, impatient, angry? Yes, yes and yes. If AI can create art, this most human form of expression, why shouldn’t it be able to mimic emotions?
The gap between man and machine is narrowing, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m excited, for sure, but also more than a teensy bit glum. Suddenly I feel so…so ordinary. As AI improves, as it reaches into every aspect of our lives, what will make humans singularly special? Will it be our personalities? Our histories, with the corresponding joys and prejudices? Our souls?