I see the end of creative writing on the horizon, and I wonder what it might mean for humanity.
A friend recently forwarded this link about Philip M. Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School, who has labored for the past ten years to develop a computer program that can write books automatically. Yes, you read it right.
Here’s how it works: A user sets parameters for the program, for example say one wishes to produce a book about narcolepsy (which Parker has done). The program then crawls the web like a search engine, locates and copies relevant information into a database. The information is organized, edited and regurgitated in book form, using an artificial intelligence grammar module, complete with table of contents, notes, bibliography, etc. I’ve seen the result; it’s correct English, and it reads like many other academic texts.
The whole process takes anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours, depending on the complexity of the topic.
Parker has used the program to publish more than 170,000 books. Go to Amazon and search on his name if you don’t believe me.
Currently, the program only produces nonfiction, research type books. But Parker and others see a day in the not too distant future when the program can be configured to write creatively.
Say what? How could a computer replicate the creative process? The whole concept of creativity is centered on an imaginative perspective drawn from a wealth of human experience.
But why not? Why couldn’t someone set the program to write a novel about an inner city youth trying to make a good life, or a love affair amid civil strife in Mali? The program could scour the web in the same way as with nonfiction, compiling reams of information from which it could develop a plot, characters, and then extrapolate an inventive climax and resolution, all in accordance with modern literary theory, which could be coded in by assigning values for aspects of what is considered good fiction. These values could even be varied to the “author’s” or audience’s tastes to produce different genres of work. As for the writing, it would draw on a vocabulary and techniques far greater than any one human writer could possess. And even if it didn’t, frankly, in today’s book market, how good does the writing have to be?
Then we will read; we will be entertained. E-books will include a variety of plot lines and outcomes from which the reader can select depending on her preference or mood. What will be the difference between reading a computer written book and playing a computer designed virtual reality game?
And what of the lowly author? What will be her place in the programmable future? Will we writers always be able to out-think our creations?
Parker also talks about being able to create audio and video programming in the same way, using (in the latter example) computer-generated animation, which is already looking close to reality.
Allow me, non-silicon-based computational unit that I am, to imagine a bit further: At last we will become the things we have made. Sooner or later we will begin to implant computer chips in our bodies, first to regulate our physical well being, but eventually to “improve” ourselves and our minds, creating greater capacity to learn by allowing us to be programmed like computers. We will exist, for a time, as both biological and robotic units. Perhaps the robot half, understanding the many flaws of its biological partner, will wrest control from its weaker side, producing entities of spectacular intelligence that will last for thousands of years. Long before then, however, the programming will condition humans to accept and prefer a specific style of writing, that of the manipulated, computer database-driven text. Creativity in writing will become merely the random generations of the program. Will we still be humans then? Perhaps we are closer to that conclusion than we prefer to believe.
 I can’t help imagining this program in the hands of high school and college students—we may never see another original term paper.
 And that, comrade, vill be an order!
 Some e-books already feature these things.
 Starting to sound like a bad “Star Trek” episode, isn’t it?