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Under Development – A Computer Program That Automatically Writes Fiction

28 August 2011

OK, there is a little Twitterbait in the blog title, but this is interesting stuff.

Passive Guy recently blogged about Philip M. Parker, professor of management science at Insead, who has over 600,000 books up on Amazon, written with substantial assistance from sophisticated computer programs.

Professor Parker was kind enough to provide a comment to that post clarifying what he has done and discussing some of what he is currently working on. PG is persuaded that the good professor doesn’t produce spam books.

He has actually written over 1 million titles, but not all are on Amazon because some are out of print.

Professor Parker explained that his comment quoted in the NY Times piece about “romance novels generated by new algorithms” was really about fiction in general, not necessarily only romance. Any romance authors whose feathers were ruffled will either find themselves placated or joined by ruffle-featherd fantasy and scifi authors.

He included a link to a video demonstrating his fiction prototype and invited comments. The video is about 12 minutes long, but PG thinks many of you will find the elements of fiction included in the prototype interesting.

Since PG wrote and sold a computer program (“Splitsville”) to replace a divorce lawyer several years ago, he was intrigued by the video. Actually, the program didn’t entirely replace a divorce lawyer, but did produce all the documents a divorce lawyer was likely to produce much faster and more accurately than some lawyers did.

Here’s a link to Professor Parker’s detailed comment.

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4 Comments to “Under Development – A Computer Program That Automatically Writes Fiction”

  1. Oh my! I watched the video. My inner reader/writer cringed. My inner geek found it fascinating. Actually, that is so cool. I really wanted to see a romance novel written in the style of Hemingway with some Homer and Joyce thrown in set in the Copper Age on another planet with an Algerian hero who speaks as if he lived in the 1920s.

    I doubt very much fiction writers (or readers) have much to fear from a fiction writing computer program. But hey, what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon, screwing around with the program.

    The real test would be, pick parameters that matches a famous short story, then have the computer write a version. See how it stands up against the original.

  2. Hey! I said this a year ago! A publisher told me her house is developing a template for certain authors to use so that each book in a particular sub-genre is basically the same. My question to her was, why pay authors at all? Pay a computer programmer and let the computer write the books.

    So I guess even artists can be replaced by a machine…

  3. A few years ago, at an RWA conference, there was a rumor floating around that Harlequin was working with a software developer to create a story generator. It was a stupid rumor, but I suspect in the back of every genre fiction writer’s mind is the niggling fear that maybe, just maybe… Because you know if publishers could get rid of those pesky, demanding writers, they’d do it in a heartbeat.

    I would love to see what Professor Parker’s program generates. Do you think it’s even readable?

    • JW,
      The fiction program has dozens of sub-routines, each for a specific purpose; within each, text is produced to be readable for its purpose (e.g. what one expects from a table of contents is very different from what one expects from the description of a chimney; either might appear “unreadable” without context before and after, but all must follow the conventions of “correct” writing). As an example, the program allows the insertion of poems and anagrams (e.g. which might be used as diary entries, or messages between characters, etc.). These can then follow any number of poetic genres or themes. The programs are optimized for readability within the confines of the genre, and the theme.

      While this is early in the history of such technologies (which will surely improve over the coming decades), here is a didactic sonnet (the code being inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnet 76 which some think concerns his mechanical methodologies in writing) where a computer writes that it cannot write sonnets, as it is only a computer (called meta poetry by some), but ironically does so – the theme of this one is “truth”:

      Truth

      Can truth be told, it’s clear my work’s not Zen?
      Levenshtein, your magic will clear the haze
      Iambic verse has rules and guides my pen
      It seems to me your spelling drives my daze.

      In truth, I’d love to build some verse for you
      To churn such verse a billion times a day
      So type a new concept for me to chew
      I keep all waiting long, I hope you stay.

      But basic truths are easily clear for all
      My sonnets suffer now from you, my foe
      Until my program sees ol’ Bill, I stall
      You test, you prod, and I do feel your blow.

      Okay, the truth is harsh, I horse you not,
      I render now the fact, I’m just a bot!

      The formula followed is well established – line 1 being a question which serves as a title, the theme is repeated across the appropriate number of stanzas/lines, the verse is iambic pentameter following rhyming pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern, there is a turn near line 9, and a surprise couplet resolution/revelation at the end.

      In contrast, the didactic limericks use a different program for that sub-genre – with the 3rd line being ambiguously vulgar, as fitting to the genre. Similarly for the other sub-genres. An early “literary” work “written” this way was a poetry anthology. You can enjoy these at http://www.totopoetry.com. Each aspect of the fiction program has similar, and numerous, “specific” routines. An entire book/work executes all of these in sequence. The math behind the poetry genres is described here:
      http://totopoetry.com/poetry/credits/edgepoetry.htm
      and
      http://www.totopoetry.com/credits/eve.asp?# (“Eve” is the name used for the AI routines).

      Hope this clarifies.
      Phil
      p.s. Levenstein refers to the computer science edit distance routines that can be used to select false rhymes, etc. and the insertion of violations to strict poetric rules.

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