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Could AI write novels?

George Orwell thought so, as long as no thinking was involved
A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

George Orwell

Björn W. Schuller, a professor of machine intelligence, is convinced it will happen soon, though not right away:

So with a machines natural language of understanding, for example, we’re not quite there yet, so when they read research papers they’re just lacking the context and sometimes don’t get the gist of let’s say irony, sarcasm or other nuances which are in between the lines.

However, these gaps are slowly becoming less of a gap, let’s say.
David Ibekwe and Fraser Moore, “AI will soon write better novels than humans, according to a computer scientist” at Business Insider

Examples were not offered. However, earlier this month, we are told, writer Ross Goodwin rigged up an AI system to produce a Jack Kerouac-style road trip diary: “A computer has written a ‘novel’ narrating its own cross-country road trip”:

“I’ve read the whole thing, in case anyone’s curious,” Goodwin says, laughing. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.” So do I, actually. I sat down to read the whole thing in one sitting, as Goodwin suggested I do, and more or less succeeded. I’m not sure there’s a cohesive arc in any classic narrative sense—but there is plenty of pixelated poetry in its ragtag assemblage of modern American imagery. And there are some striking and memorable lines—“the picnic showed a past that already had hair from the side of the track,” struck me, for one. Brian Merchant, “When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac” at The Atlantic

Ross Goodwin

In short, there are lines that one can try to force into some sort of oblique meaning. That happens with Scrabble letters too. One complicating factor is the development in recent decades of a genre called “found poetry”:

Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet. Found Poem: Poetic Form” at Academy of American Poets

One could certainly find and arrange materials from a machine’s output, as from many other sources, if no original material is to be generated.

The idea that machines might write novels for popular consumption occurred to George Orwell (1903–1950) and he incorporated it into his dystopian classic, 1984 (1949). One of his central characters has a job minding a novel-writing machine:

“Julia was twenty-six years old… and she worked, as he had guessed, on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department. She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor… She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product. She “didn’t much care for reading,” she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.”

Of course, the books the machine produces are commodities like jam or bootlaces. No original thought goes into them; indeed, none is permitted in the totalitarian state, Airstrip 1, formerly England, where Julia lives and works.

It’s quite likely that artificial intelligence could churn out books of that sort. In fact, some of us have reviewed books proudly authored by humans that sounded rather like they were produced with considerable assistance from a cliche generator. But reversing the process, getting the cliche generator to produce original thoughts, does not sound possible.

Serious literature will always be written, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, in “blood, toil, tears and sweat” because imaging the human condition accurately is part of its nature. And if the writer lives in an unfree society, serious literature will also be written in fear.

See also: Screenwriters jobs are not threatened by artificial intelligence Unless the public starts preferring mishmash to creativity (Robert J. Marks)


Karl Marx’s eerie AI prediction He felt that capitalism would fall when machines replaced human labor

Could AI write novels?