‘Harry tore his eyes from his head and threw them into the forest.’
That’s a horrific image, isn’t it? Bit of a Clive Barker vibe, I’d say. Maybe even H.P. Lovecraft after seeing one too many ravens on his morning walk.
Sadly – or utterly brilliantly – the ‘Harry’ quite literally casting his gaze across the forest is Harry Potter. The line was written by a computer algorithm that slurped up the seven Harry Potter novels and then pulled them apart to understand how J.K. Rowling constructs her sentences. Using this wonky ruleset, it then wrote three chapters of a book called Harry Potter and The Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. As you can tell from the title, it’s utterly demented. Charmingly so. Let me illustrate this by quoting another line:
‘Ron’s Ron shirt was just as bad as Ron himself.’
What at first blush looks incompetent swiftly reveals itself as surreal, the sort of thing Douglas Adams’ might have written at 2 a.m. Squint hard enough and there’s talent in it.
I made this point to a mate of mine who looked at me as though I’d just vomited all over the table and asked him to guess what I’d had for breakfast. He explained that an algorithm is just a complicated list of ‘if/then’ instructions intended to mimic the human decision-making process. They’re everywhere, apparently. They run lifts, match people on dating sites, make trades on the stock market, even set those weird book prices on Amazon.
In this case, the algorithm had just cut up bits of the Potter books, then used a rudimentary understanding of grammar to rearrange them. Any perceived talent was pot luck, thousand monkeys sort of stuff.
My argument was, ‘Who cares?’ I enjoyed it. More to the point, that algorithm was created by one guy with a little extra time on his hands. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and a hundred research labs we have yet to hear of are pouring billions into creating true artificial intelligence (AI) – learning machines capable of completing tasks, including creating original works of art, without any reference to what’s gone before. These are not mere algorithms, churning through instructions we’ve written for them. These are intelligent, autonomous, and creative.
They may sound a long way off, but I’ve already met one. A few years ago, Professor Geraint Wiggins of the Queen Mary University introduced me to an AI he’d built that had composed a few pieces of music. They were so terrible they made me laugh, at which point Professor Wiggins pointed out that it had taught itself every instrument and compositional style in a few months, and it was still at a very early stage of its development. I stopped laughing very quickly. If an AI could learn to compose music, how long before one could write books?
Here’s the funny thing though – once you get past the crippling terror, it’s actually kind of exciting.
I’m in the middle of writing my second book, and I’m stuck on a chapter. It’s a plotting problem. Too many things need to happen in too few words. There are revelations and decisions, and because I really haven’t thought this through, a fistfight. If you imagine a man trying to jam a troop of elephants into a suitcase, that’s me. And it’s been me for three days.
I’m not sure it can be done, and I’m probably going to have to rejigger my entire plot to fix it. That means rewriting earlier chapters and rethinking the later ones – a subplot’s about to get its throat cut, basically. That’s fine, it’s part of the process, but what if I had an AI co-author to help?
Perhaps there’s a structural way of resolving my problem. Maybe my A,B,C,D could be elegantly rearranged into B,D,A,C, but I’m so deep in the woods all I’m seeing are matchsticks. How lovely would it be to feed my AI co-author the page, let it kick out the lumps and return an alternative draft to me ten seconds later. My words, my plot and my ideas, just moved around, with a few new AI-authored sentences to cover the joins.
And from there, my idea of what an AI author could mean just kept growing. Every author has things they dislike writing – exposition is mine, though I’ve got friends who despise description. You can usually spot these moments, at least in the early drafts. The writing goes flat, like a bike tyre slowing deflating.
What if we could leave those bits to an AI co-author, and then swoop in after the fact to add our authorly flourishes? Suddenly books that used to take two years would only take one. Your favourite crime writer could have their new book on your doorstep every other week.
And why shackle this technology to existing writers? Everyone has a novel in them, or so we’re told. My nan was 2 per cent carbon and 98 per cent stories. Everybody said she should write a book, but she didn’t have the skill, time, or interest. An AI co-author would have turned my nan into James Patterson. She would have fed it the idea, and we could all have read about how she lost her finger in a meat slicer during the bombing.
Admittedly, at this point the co-author isn’t co-authoring anymore, and that makes the byline an issue. Who do we credit? Would it be my nan and Google, or would it just be Google, churning out books for 20p without needing us authors at all? It’s not hard to envision a day when an AI author comes built into every phone. You open the app, tell it the length of your commute, and it writes you a story you can read in that time.
Would this devalue writing, I wonder? Would people even accept it? We prize imagination; admire it and cultivate it, we use it to define ourselves as a species. Would we ever believe AI had that ability, and, if not, would we be able to truly enjoy an AI-authored story? Perhaps we’ll end up with something akin to the furniture market – with handcrafted, human-written stories fetching a premium, while most people buy their books from AI-author Ikea.
‘I know a lot of people are worried about computers replacing humans, but I really don’t see that happening,’ says Professor Wiggins. ‘Having cars doesn’t stop people having fun walking in the countryside. Because creativity is something humans get a kick out of doing it’s very unlikely humans will ever be replaced by computers. I also think it’s unlikely the kind of computers we have now will ever do art as well as a human. Maybe future kinds of computers will, but they’d also probably do it differently.’
I’m choosing to believe him. I like the idea of an AI co-author that makes writing more fun, or one that gives everybody the chance to tell their stories. And truthfully, it doesn’t matter whether I embrace the technology or not, because it’s coming one way or another.
Stuart Turton is the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, available now from Bloomsbury.