Humans Need Not Apply
Computers will write novels one day.
Most of the people I mention this to tell me I’m crazy. It doesn’t matter that computers are already writing newspaper articles or stock analyses. It doesn’t matter that computers are already conversing with humans who are convinced that these are people on the other end of the line. Or that computers can beat us in chess (once thought to be more art than mechanics) or Jeopardy (once thought to be a puzzle no machine could ever crack).
Those who don’t believe fall prey to the fact that some past predictions have not panned out. The flying car is a popular distraction. This is as bad an error as the opposite mistake, which is to assume that every wild idea is an eventuality, given enough time. What makes more sense is to look at trends, see what is taking place in laboratories today, and make reasonable estimates.
This video (shared by a commenter on a previous post) does a fair job of this. You should watch the entire piece; it’s brilliant:
In a previous comment, I shared how I thought this might progress. It won’t be all-at-once, and it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it will happen.
First, computers will learn elements of storytelling just as they’ve already learned elements of language. Hundreds of novels will be extensively “marked up” by researchers. Parts of sentences will be tagged, but also elements of plot and structure. Programs will absorb all of these marked up novels and learn general principles. This is already being done with movie scripts, where machines can gauge audience reaction by looking at the placement of certain beats throughout the work.
The earliest examples of computer-written novels will be slight alterations of existing material. That is, a human author will write a “seed book,” and a computer will be able to modify elements of this to match readers. For instance, geography and place-names will match where the reader lives. All events in the same novel will take place in every reader’s home town, with street names and descriptions that match what people see in real life. The protagonist’s gender can be switched with the press of a button, with all pronouns tweaked to match. Or relationships can be same-sex to give more reading diversity for the pro LGBTQ community. Names can match the ethnicity of the reader or their preference.
This application is already within the scope of today’s technology. We might assume it hasn’t been implemented due to lack of demand, but I think the first publisher to try this will see that big data and the ability to customize the product will result in a higher level of satisfaction and engagement. Which will lead to more repeat customers and more sales.
The first place this will be seen is in the translation market. The advances happening here are amazing and destined to compound. Translators and foreign publishers will be creamed by this revolution, but readers all over the world and writers will benefit. Every book will be available in all languages, and computers will play a large role in “writing” these books. The same arguments about nuance and the meanings of words are precisely why no one thought a computer could win at Jeopardy. Keep in mind that the computer revolution is only a few decades old. We’re talking about what will happen 50 to 100 years from now.
In my lifetime, we’ll see grammar checking software put copyeditors out of work. With a few clicks, every novel will be error-free. Eventually, these programs will look beyond punctuation mistakes and typos; they’ll look for continuity errors and also historical inaccuracies. You’ll enter the dates covered by your historical fiction, and any mention of tech that doesn’t fit will be highlighted. Look at coding software and how it can debug as you code for examples of how much progress is being made.
Eventually, writing computers will advance until they’re able to pen individual scenes. There are already infant AIs that can converse with humans (a quasi-win went to an AI this year in the annual Turing Test), so dialog will get better. And then someone will program a computer to write an infinite array of bar fights. That one plug-in will join thousands of others. And then books will be written with the guidance of humans, who create the outlines of plot while computers fill in the details (a maturation of what James Patterson does with his ghost writers today). Eventually, even the ability to create plot will be automated.
If you doubt that computers can have a role in art, look at how digital painting has evolved. It starts with digitizing analog art, which is then filtered or modified to look different. Then photographs are manipulated to look like original art, which some artists are now doing for profit, passing off the entire affair as if hand-drawn. Music and fine arts are already computer-created and enjoyed. The same will be true for literature one day.
At first, people will balk. Then they’ll find out many of the books they’ve already read and enjoyed were written by a computer, and the author was an actor hired to sign books and talk about “motive” and “theme.” There will be a small market for “hand-written” books, just as there is an Etsy for those who prefer things made without the intervention of a machine. In ten years, we’ll see people chatting in the front seats of cars that are driving themselves. We will live with robots more and more (mine just vacuumed the house). And these things won’t seem quite so insane.