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Writing in the Time of Algorithms

robot at typewriter

"At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me." —David Sedaris


That's the headline that greeted me Monday morning from the Writum thread I follow over at LinkedIn. It was like opening the newspaper to see the storylines of both Terminator and I, Robot had come true while I slept. It made my skin crawl as I considered the question. Then, as I continued to think about it and what it might mean for me as a writer, I became even more concerned.

Technology has replaced a lot of humans in the job market over the last thirty years…could writers be the next victims—dare I say, Red Shirts—of this worrisome, Borg-like assimilation?

The Factual Reporter
Consider the following sports report:

Friona fell 10–8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2–2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning…Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all…

What if I told you that it was written by an algorithm and not a person?

Well, it's true. That piece of sports reporting was created by Quill, an Artificial Intelligence data program developed by Chicago-based Narrative Science. This is where it gets really spooky because in the simplest of terms, Quill works like a random number generator…though instead of randomly generating numbers, it purposefully generates words.

Quill mines your data, looking for a narrative structure to use as a base point. Then, through a group of Artificial Intelligence algorithms, Quill pulls out and organizes important pieces of information that match up with the prescribed structure. Finally, Quill uses that information to build a written narrative that fits perfectly within the outlined foundation.

[Nope, not gonna panic…]

The Prolific Academic
Narrative Science isn't the only one with a horse in this race. In 2007, economist Philip Parker, who teaches marketing at the European Institute of Business Administration in Singapore, created a patented system that uses an specially designed algorithm to compile groups of data into book format. Granted, the data stem primarily from technical reports which are relatively easy to automatically source and format, but make no mistake—the volume of work is impressive. Amazon currently sells approximately 100,000 books attributed to Parker, with another 700,000 or so for sale that can be attributed to his company.

In fact, the algorithm works so well that Parker has even considered using it to create romance novels. Why romance novels, you ask? Because it's a formulaic genre that follows a specific format across the board. An established structure like that lends itself to Parker's algorithm system and he's determined to prove that fiction can be automatically generated.

[...still not gonna panic…]

The Artificial Author
As if the rest of this wasn't cause enough for writerly concern, a Russian IT group published a novel based on the Japanese translation of Anna Karenina back in 2008…a novel that was 100% written by a computer program.

It took the IT company eight months to develop the program, which they backloaded with 17 famous literary works. Within three days, the program had created the novel, True Love, that went on to be published by Astrel SPb Publishing in St. Petersburg.

A publishing company…published a novel…that used other famous novels…to create its story…which was written by Artificial Intelligence.


The Very Real Creative Writer
I'll never work as efficiently as a computer, which is a good thing. Computers are incapable of empathy and sympathy. They may form sentences and write novels, but how much emotion are they capable of imbuing in the prose? The honest answer is none; no matter how much Artificial Intelligence we may load a hard drive with, it will always lack emotional intelligence. Wires and code are poor substitutions for heart and experience, for flesh and bone. You may hug your MacBook at night…but does it hug you back?

What do you think, dear reader? Are we doomed to a Machine Mutiny, like The Terminator? Or will we combat technology with a desire to remain human?

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