If computers are able to write content that is indistinguishable from human authored writing, what will this mean? If they can one day write anything from travel guides to literary novels, will people read them? Would they trust that a computer knows where the best restaurants in Atlanta are or the best hotels in Paris? What about literature? Humans plumb the depths of their emotions and draw on extraordinary experiences to create great literary works; could a computer possibly do the same? If this comes to fruition and people can distinguish between a human and a computer, which will they prefer? If they prefer the computer-generated content, what would this mean for authors?
Starting with what computers can already do, we can look at information compilations such as travel guides. People will read them because computers can pull human reviews from the internet and compile more reviews more quickly than any human ever could therefore making it the best authority on anything that is subject to reviews. It will likely have a better review for you than your best friend’s actual experience.
Once computers have advanced past that stage and on to simple or formulaic literature, humans will not care who or what wrote it as long as it is entertaining. The most common formulaic genre is romance, and, out of the paperback fiction category in North America, romance novels are the best-selling. Computers can be fed formulaic plot lines and stock characters to work with, and will be able to read through a million novels to get ideas on which words and phrases are liked best by humans. Humans already read extremely formulaic books and will not mind if a computer writes them instead of a human, especially since the computer is pulling from sources written by humans.
Other formulaic examples come from syndicates like the Stratmeyer Sydicate that put out Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. The Stratmeyer Syndicate is an excellent example of why computers could become “fiction factories”, as the syndicate was known. Founder Edward Stratmeyer hired unknown writers, gave them anything from a few sentences to a three-page outline and a plot, and expected to receive a finished book two weeks later complete with chapter cliffhanger endings and consistent sounding dialogue.
Computers will soon be able do even better – as of today they can write fiction that is almost comparable to that written by humans. By having access to every book and online resource possible, they have access to almost all human documentation thus far, giving them the power to not only get ideas and phrases that have received positive human feedback, but also millions of human experiences, and what emotions these evoked. Alexander Prokopovich’s algorithm wrote its own version of War and Peace, entitled True Love, in 2008. It sounds close to a lot of human writing apart from the odd phrase or two: ‘Kitty couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. Her nerves were strained as two tight strings.’ The Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a program called Scheherazade that can write fiction that sounds convincingly human. For example:
John took another deep breath as he wondered if this was really a good idea, and entered the bank. John stepped into line behind the last person and waited his turn. When the person before John had finished, John slowly walked up to Sally. The teller said, “Hello, my name is Sally, how can I help you?” Sally got scared when John approached because he looked suspicious. John pulled out a handgun that was concealed in his jacket pocket. John wore a stern stare as he pointed the gun at Sally. Sally was very scared and screamed out of fear for her life. In a rough, coarse voice, John demanded the money. John threw the empty bag onto the counter. John watched as Sally loaded the bag and then grabbed it from her once she had filled it. Sally felt tears streaming down her face as she let out sorrowful sobs. John strode quickly from the bank and got into his car tossing the money bag on the seat beside him. John slammed the truck door and, with tyres screaming, he pulled out of the parking space and drove away.
Robot fiction reviewer Nicholas Lezard actually thought it was an excerpt from a new Dan Brown novel, but then realised Scheherazade could have been programmed using algorithms based on Brown.
Over the years people have come up with tests to see if a computer can pass as a human. One such test is the Turing Test. Invented by Alan Turing, it consists of a human sitting in a room at a terminal with a computer, and a computer at a terminal in a separate room. The human corresponds via text with whoever or whatever is in the other room, and then he or she has to figure out if he or she is corresponding with another human or with a computer. So far no computer program has definitively passed this test. People have come up with alternate Turing Tests where people read different articles or stories and try and figure out whether a human or a computer wrote them. One such a test can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/algorithm-human-quiz.html.
As times moves on, humans will be unlikely to prefer one type of writing over the other. Some people will happily read formulaic, computer generated novels, others will be intrigued and will voraciously read literary novels written by computers, while traditionalists will stick with their human written works.
If the majority of humans ever do prefer computer-generated content this will affect authors because they will be less in demand. If a computer can write the new Dan Brown while authors are working on literary novels, which already don’t sell as well as thrillers, they may lose out on work. That being said, there will always be traditionalists so computers writing fiction may actually push human authors harder to compete, drawing forth some of the best literature we have ever read.
As of right now, although they are close, computers cannot write fiction equal to that authored by humans. “The hardest [for the computers] to crack will be the elements of great writing we ourselves struggle to explain: the poetic force of the sentences, the unique insights of the author, the sense of a connection.”