image credit: Rob Hodges, flickr

See Bot Run: Are Robot Writers On the March?

Feel like your book has lots of competition? It turns out, the authors you’re up against aren’t just just humans — robots are now getting into the writing game too.

The Associated Press now churns out ~30 articles a day based on algorithms, according to Verge. You can see examples of those articles with this Google search. AP buys those articles from a company called Automated Insights, which may be able to generate 2,000 articles per second.

And Swedish computer programmer Sverker Johansson has created an automated robot known as Lsjbot that has written nearly 3 million Wikipedia entries. “The bot scrapes information from various trusted sources, and then cobbles that material together, typically into a very short entry, or ‘stub,’” says Popular Science.

But Sverker Johansson is just one of many Geppettos behind an army of robot writers. As Popular Science explains:

Finance and sports are the usual targets of robot reporting. Both are a bit robotic by nature. The most basic reports involve plugging numbers from a database into one of a few standard narratives….auto-writers are able to accurately process an inhuman amount of data, then present it in a way that humans like to see: in words.

Finance stories are a long way from a novel, obviously. There’s still plenty of skepticism that robots can ever be programmed to get the essentially undefinable beauty that goes into great writing. The Guardian describes the many hurdles ahead:

Part of the challenge is teaching a computer not merely to describe, but to imagine…There are many other challenges, from the rhythmic qualities of the prose to character arcs and plotting. The hardest 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…But even if one day the computer will pass muster at the level of the sentence, there is, on this evidence, no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping

Others are betting on the bots.  Top-selling self-published sci-fi author and blogger Hugh Howey thinks robot-written fiction is definitely coming… if not in our lifetimes:

I believe if humans can stick around for another thousand years, it is inevitable. I’m also open to the chance (though skeptical) that some unforeseen advance in computing power or technology makes this possible in fifty years. Perhaps an actual quantum computer is constructed. Maybe in 50 years, a program like Watson gets more refined and has access to enough data and processing power that an emergent quality arises from what previously seemed wholly mechanical. That is, consciousness might flip on like a switch.

We don’t have to wait 1,000 years… or even fifty. Several researchers and developers have already created working prototypes for bot-generated fiction. One Japanese literary award is hoping to include bot-created submissions in this year’s entries:

Organisers of the prize – which was set up last year to honour one of Japan’s major science fiction writers, Shinichi Hoshi – hope that next year’s competition will see stories created by artificial intelligences going up against those written by humans, with judges to be unaware of who – or what – wrote an entry until the winner is chosen.

And if all this sounds vaguely Orwellian, that’s because it is. Here’s a few prophetic lines from 1984:

Julia was twenty-six years old. She lived in a hostel with thirty other girls (‘Always in the stink of women! How I hate women!’ she said parenthetically), 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 was ‘not clever’, but was fond of using her hands and felt at home with machinery. 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 finished product. She ‘didn’t much care for reading,’ she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.

How do you feel about the possibility of competing against bot-written fiction? Tell us in the comments below!

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