Will robots one day write a bestseller?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 9:41am

Forget Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Tolkein - welcome to the fictional world of Mr Windows. Automated writing software is taking off so quickly in some areas of publishing that the humble human author could soon be replaced by a robot capable of dashing out flash fiction, poetry and novels in a fraction of the time.

Journalists could be similarly doomed, and the news desk could soon become an even less emotional place. But does anyone actually want to read a newspaper or a novel written by a robot?

Whether or not writers like it, automated writing is coming. Machine translation software is already common and financial reporting is next.

One such piece of software is Narrative Science's Quill, which automatically transforms structured data into plain English stories indistinguishable from those generated by humans, and at an unprecedented speed and scale. "Quill's power lies in the fact that it is a synthesis of data analytics, artificial intelligence and editorial expertise," says Kris Hammond, chief technology operator at Narrative Science. As well as an ability to describe, predict and advise based purely on data, Quill has artificial intelligence in the form of a "natural language engine".

As with any software, Quill is based on algorithmic analysis, though its secret weapon isn't artificial intelligence, but instead a patent-protected use of journalistic "angles". It's that which brings it an ability to make distinctions between situations and have a nuanced approach to generating news.

For now at least, we're talking about highly structured, financial news that's written purely to inform - not to entertain. "The only limit on the technology is that Quill can only generate language where there is data to begin with," says Hammond. "While this could, in theory, include textbooks and novels, it is doubtful we will see the technology applied to those problems in the near term. It does, however, already send out Tweets during sporting events."

So should sports journalists as well as news writers feel threatened by such software? "No one should be worried about automated writing systems," says Hammond. "As with our technology they are designed for writing into spaces where no one else is writing and working in co-ordination with other writers and analysts.

Software that helps writers has been around for a while. One is NewNovelist, which attempts to ape a creative writing course and includes advice on how to structure a novel into sections, citing examples from well known works. Is that somehow cheating the reader?

"Providing the software does not write the prose of a novel then it can't be cheating," says Andrew Philpott, product manager at NewNovelist. "It does contain automatic name generators and the like, but the writer never leaves the driving seat of their novel."

There are differing levels of creativity at work here, but don't confuse "automated" with "automatic" writing. The latter is a creative stream of consciousness method famously used by American author Jack Kerouac to write On the Road (Kerouac called it "spontaneous prose", others "dream writing"). Can automated writing, which is purely about increasing efficiency and saving time, really shed any light on the human subconscious?

"Most automated writing software works by imitating samples from human writing," says John Lee, assistant professor in Chinese, translation and linguistics at City University, whose research group is developing an app that helps users compose Chinese poems. "The application automatically mines word usage and sentence structure patterns from a database of poems from Quantangshi, an anthology of classical Chinese poems written during the Tang dynasty," says Lee. "Based on these patterns, it suggests the next words to the user as he or she composes a poem."

However, it's much easier to imitate short poems than novels, explains Lee. To write novels, software must be able to learn word usage, plot development and understand the characters.

Whether or not a computer could ever write a bestselling novel remains to be seen. "I believe that stories and novels are a very human thing and based on the human experience," says Philpott. "When someone reads a novel they create a relationship with the author and will spend many hours with them. Would I really want to spend hours with a soulless box of diodes while it tells me a story?"

Lee thinks that a potential problem with automated writing technology - which might one day bring the prospect of personalised books - is that robots write in low-quality language that's hard to tolerate, let alone enjoy.

"It would be most difficult for robots to create texts that require both creative content and high-quality language," he says.

"Computers may one day be able to write decent novels, albeit ones that sound somewhat like others, but they are unlikely to create true masterpieces."

The robot's role in the short term will be to help, not replace, the journalist or author, perhaps by writing the first draft that then needs comprehensive editing by a human.

"Perhaps one day technology and artificial intelligence will develop sufficiently to allow robots to write meaningful, original, fictional works," says Philpott.

"However, I think these novels will only be worth reading if robots themselves play a role in our lives as living beings and we share experiences with them."

To be, or not to be? Now that's a question that ought to vex the first generation of robot writers.