A hallmark of civilisation has been the drive to create unique stories that explore the human condition. Now robots are learning to write fiction. Is nothing sacred?
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No computer has yet written the Great Australian Novel because they have some of the same handicaps that afflict human writers. Writing is hard. Although computers can work unhindered by free will, alcohol or divorce, such advantages are outweighed by a lack of life experience or emotions.

Computers are quietly elbowing their way into the workplace. They’re flying planes, driving cars, selecting job candidates and writing news stories. The Associated Press employs a company called Automated Insights to create short news reports from raw data. More advanced software is working on longer pieces. To be able to write fiction, a machine does not have to think like us but it must “understand” patterns of human experience. While not discounting the life of the mind, computers are being fed millions of novels and short stories to “teach” them character, pace and plot.

This is the goal of the What-If Machine (WHIM) project, a venture involving teams at five universities across Europe. WHIM analyses databases of human prose and then inverts or twists what it has learned to introduce a new idea as a premise for a story. Knowing what is typical is the first step in generating atypical stories.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been working for four years on a program called Scheherazade, which analyses crowd-sourced human anecdotes and then produces plausible short stories.

The program writes convincing sentences: “You entered the movie theatre … you find the seats allocated on your ticket.”Stories generated by Scheherazade about everyday situations are nearly indistinguishable from human-written short stories. Using code, they are taught to learn from their mistakes.

I was the former head of the creative writing programs at a large university in Melbourne, where students were taught the difficult art of writing fiction. The majority of the themes involved young women living in the inner suburbs who had gotten themselves involved in drugs, prostitution, a gender change or domestic violence. I never realised things were so grim in Fitzroy and Newtown.

Could a computer write those plots? Absolutely. The reason is they are programmatic. It’s innovative and unique writing that computers have trouble with. Could they write like James Joyce or Ursula Le Gunn? Forget it.

The philosopher Leibniz speculated that humans wrote, uttered words and phrases that were derived from individual emotions and perceptions. Behind this was an important supposition. Humans are not only knowable but predictable (sort of).

If our thinking and how we express our thoughts in language can be expressed in an equation or by a “middlebrow algorithm”, then we can also model the product of that thinking. That means a computer can write novels and poetry.

I know what you’re thinking. Computers aren’t alive. Their “writing”is flat and lifeless. There’s no surprises, nothing that rises up off the page and goes for your throat or heart. But such criticism may be premature.

It’s intriguing that human beings, whose very consciousness is born from experience, may relate in some way to stories that have no experiential grounding. That truly would be science fiction.

Malcolm King works in generational change and is an Adelaide writer.

What if?: Can a computer master the art of writing fiction.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.