Thursday, February 24, 2011

Help me, Watson, you're my only literary hope

This'll have to be a brief post today--all of us swamped with work, and wishing I was a robot just so I could plow through every bit of work without the slightest diversion from the task at hand. With the IBM Watson computer's round on Jeopardy just having wrapped up a series of stellar games, I keep wondering: could there be a literary equivalent of Watson? As we move ahead into an ever-more digitized world of publishing, surely some of what used to be done slowly and methodically is now being automated. But while certain aspects of typesetting and design can be "flowed in" from computer templates, could we ever really let a computer assess--and create--literature?

As you'll see in my upcoming book review, I've been doing a lot of thinking about what constitutes creative work. Does fictive creation come from out of illogical, unrestricted, free-flowing thought, or does it come from a careful step-by-step progression through a series of events that jumpstart character development? There are a lot of ways to go about writing a novel--some writers plot things from beginning to end before ever writing a word; others start with a single evocative idea or image and later impose structure and form onto their story. But could a computer ever generate ideas the way an author does?

I'm holding off on my full thoughts on this for my review, but for now consider the advent of chatbots, a series of chat generators that use algorithmic intelligence to hold conversations with human users. You can use it to play with language, or to stave off loneliness, but the curiosity of holding a human-computer exchange has its moments of intrigue. My first conversation with a chatbot through the program Jabberwacky went something like this:

JW: Roses are red.
JFS: How sweet. Are you courting me?
JW: Define courting.
JFS: Flirting.
JW: Are you flirting with me?
JFS: You asked for a definition.
JW: No. I asked if you wanted to host the game or if I should.
JFS: I much prefer Scrabble.
Alejandro, alejandro, ale-ale-jandro, ale-ale-jandro.

I could never have predicted that the chatbot would take me from old-fashioned lines of courtship poetry to Lady Gaga, so there was some element of spontaneity and surprise. But then again, what the chatbot gave me was an entertaining non-sequitur at best. If this was a writer bringing a piece of dialogue to me, I'm be writing "Where is this coming from?" all over the margins in red pencil.

If you were reading a novel written by a computer, would it read like pure gibberish, or like rigid structure? It seems writers are constantly balancing their impulses for orderly narrative with a desire for original thought, and the ones who do it well create great, accessible works of high art. But when we leave this process to a computer, it seems that balance is pretty unstable. More on this in our issue next week, but I urge anyone interested in how story comes together to hold a few sessions with a chatbot. Play with it. Flirt with it. Trade non-sequiturs with it. See what you get...

1 comment:

  1. If it's a matter of input and output, chain stories provide another alternative for literature production without the cold stare of a microchip on a dark and gloomy morning. Sites like toss authors through logical turn-based methods for writing stories, using the division of labor so inherent to the integrated circuit to produce hyper-creative narratives.