Friday, December 1, 2017

A Thousand Monkeys Walk Into A Room – And Start Typing Away

Scientists have invented a robot that can do your writing for you. You give it the basic plot and characters and it does the rest. Would you use it? Why or why not?

by Paul D. Marks

Aren’t some authors doing that already? Kind of doing factory farming writing – farming out their books to other authors. That seems kind of robotic to me.

And while it would be nice to have a robot take some of the burden off, I don’t think I’d do it. But like Sean Connery learned, “never say never.”

Part of what makes good writing is the author’s personal experience and how they interpret that experience and distill it into their writing. How s/he infuses their writing with their take on life. A robot or artificial intelligence would be missing that. Until they can truly experience life, not just have it programmed into them, their writing will lack a certain heart to it. And didn’t they try that with typing monkeys, thinking that eventually they’d come up with a Shakespeare play just by random chance. According to Wikipedia, “The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.” The same might be said for a robot. But, even if they could do it, having it programmed into them to whatever extent, it takes the fun and spontaneity out of writing.

Slate has an article about Shelley A.I., a bot that writes horror stories. ( ). I think the examples provided in the article show that the writing is, indeed, a bit “mechanical”. And, as they say in the piece, “The algorithms, like Shelley, still require human-made works to teach themselves how to create phrases and sentences from words, how to generate drama and rising action and climax, how to access a lexicon that delivers the right sort of tone and purpose, and more.” So it seems like robots or Artificial Intelligence bots have it one up over the monkeys, but I’m thinking that the A.I. writer still lacks something humans do, most especially life experience that puts what they’re writing in context and gives it a deeper texture. (I noticed that one of the commenters to RM’s blog earlier this week also mentioned this piece, so the word on A.I. Writer Bots is getting out.)

Wired also did a piece both written by and about robots or A.I. And maybe it works for non-fiction, at least a little better than for fiction. But for fiction it doesn’t seem like it would work, even if you wanted to do it that way. You can find the Wired story here: 

There’s something to be said for the human touch, whether in the market checkout line or at the bank…or in writing. Yes, the ATM or auto checkout line might be faster, but sometimes it’s nice just to have a face to say hello to and have it say hello back. Of course if they’re talking to their co-workers or on the phone, well screw ’em.

And while it’s nice to have “robots” or programs that can spell-check, offer up Thesaurus words or even check grammar (more on that in a minute) and analyze your story, you have to be the one to do the creative work. I don’t even like those programs that plot for you or do other similar things because they take the “me” out of the writing and without that the work could be written by pretty much anyone – or any bot –, so what then makes it unique? Plus, do we really want robots taking our writing jobs away?

Now to grammar: If you’ve tried using a grammar checker as a fiction writer you’ve probably found that it’s way too formal. It might work for non-fiction, but fiction is more free-form. And grammar checkers can drive you crazy. So though a robot or A.I. bot might be able to come up with a story it might be stiff and talk and walk awkwardly like Robby the Robot. You also have to be careful that your bot doesn’t mutiny on you:


Someday there might be robots or AI with enough heart to create a good story. Or maybe, ultimately the human element just can’t be replaced.


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:


Unknown said...

I read that Shelley AI clip, and it is creepy, maybe mostly because it's written by a thing without a soul. Computers may outcreep us, but will they ever get the nuances of humour? Maybe. And thanks for the old HAL clip, Paul - as if I'm not scared enough (:O

Susan C Shea said...

You make two good points: writing is fun; and we get to twist grammar to our ends to humanize and enliven the story. I'm sticking with us.

GBPool said...

I'm pretty sure many self-respecting monkeys wouldn't take credit for some of the schlock in books and in the movies today. So if a machine wants to write a story, let another machine read it. Even if I am the only human who reads my stuff, at least it is given the proper respect. I like/love Spellcheck. I still have to re-read what I wrote to make sure the word that is one the page, even if it is spelled correctly, is the word I want. Give me the human touch every time. Machines can't do everything. How many times has your computer crashed over the past few years? I'll still be a better story-teller than a machine, because I can change the ending.

Paul D. Marks said...

I think that’s the problem, RM, computers have no soul. But who knows, maybe someday someone will program a soul into them and then we really better watch out. Glad I could help out with the HAL clip ;-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. I’m sticking with us, too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Love all your points, Gayle. Especially about the self-respecting monkeys not wanting to take credit for much of what’s out there today.

Anonymous said...

Not for me, at least not till I'm too old and feeble to type (but still creative). I wouldn't mind having a less robotic voice for the Text-to-Speech feature on Word.

Paul D. Marks said...

I know what you mean, Maggie. Not for me either, but "never say never" :-) .

Lawrence Maddox said...

I agree, Paul. Let the robot check spelling; leave the creativity to us flawed humans.