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Man or machine - can robots really write novels?

30 October 12 09:19 GMT

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

Machines can already drive trains, beat humans at chess and conduct countless other tasks. But what happens if technology starts getting more creative - can a machine ever win the Booker Prize for fiction?

In George Orwell's fiction, by 1984 the "proles" were entertained by books produced by a machine.

In real life, robots have been capable of writing a version of love letters for over 60 years.

But how far away are books written by robots?

Well they have already happened, in their hundreds of thousands.

Professor Philip Parker, of Insead business school, created software that has generated over 200,000 books, on as varied topics as the 60 milligrams of fat in fromage frais to a Romanian crossword guide.

Amazon currently lists over 100,000 titles under his name.

While not expecting to top the bestsellers list or win any literary awards, they take under an hour to "write" because of how they are produced and are printed when requested rather than in bulk.

The books compile existing information and offer new predictions using forumulas, like estimating the future size of markets for example. But Professor Parker has experimented with a piece of software that is capable of creating automated fiction.

Photoshop's Raphael?

Fiction is often criticised for being a factory process of using formula and "write by numbers" approaches. Creative writing programmes have been likened to working "from a pattern book" by Booker-nominated author Will Self.

Certain pieces of writing software provide templates that will automatically create the structure of a novel and once written, can tell you how easy the novel is to read.

"No novel writing package will write your book for you," says software firm NewNovelist.

"They certainly can help you complete your novel and make sure it is composed correctly."

But if there is a formula, can the novelist really be replaced by an algorithm?

Russian Alexander Prokopovich is said to be responsible for the first successful book to be created by robots. It was published in 2008 and was written in the style of Japanese author Haruki Murakami in a variation on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

"The program can never become an author, like Photoshop can never be Raphael," Prokopovich told the St Petersburg Times.

Whether this is actually an original work of fiction is up for debate. Though this could be compared to the literary argument about whether any work of fiction is truly original.

On a more simple level, the people experimenting with the technology believe that it is not as difficult to create fiction as critics believe.

'Preferred' to Shakespeare

"Any genre of fiction that has a 'dummy's guide' to it could be created with an algorithm," says Prof Parker.

"The more a genre subscribes to a formula, the more straightforward it is.

"In romantic fiction, instructions for authors can be as specific as down to the page. If you feed that information into a computer, the formula is followed. Each genre has some sort of formula, just some more than others."

Prof Parker's software, still in prototype, would allow characters to be decided, locations to be set, genre fixed and plot mechanisms chosen. It then creates anything from 3,000-word flash fiction to a 300,000-word novel.

He has even done public experiments with poetry.

"A computer works very well with rules and the most obvious way is poetry," he says.

"We did a blind test between a Shakespearean sonnet and one that the computer had written. A majority of people surveyed preferred ours.

"That's not to say it was better, Shakespeare is a genius, but it was what people preferred."

With so many authors around - Mills and Boon publishes around 100 books a month - Prof Parker is keen to stress that his aim is not to produce fiction that is already created in abundance.

Instead, it could be used to write in languages or on topics that are not widely covered.

But computers are not just seen as a threat to creative work but to other writing as well.

Startup company Narrative Science has started creating articles, without a human doing the writing.

With 30 clients for its articles already, written automatically by a machine collating data and writing "rich narrative content" from it, the death of the journalist has been mentioned in more than one speculative column.

Business news site Forbes is using the service for a number of pieces each weekday.

'Pointless' fiction

But if neither Beryl Bainbridge nor Martin Amis can win the Booker Prize, what chance does a machine really have?

And if creative writing really is creative, what new ideas could a computer offer?

"I couldn't think of anything more pointless than reading a piece of fiction written by a robot," says science fiction author Alastair Reynolds.

"Even if it was indistinguishable from your average Booker Prize winning novel.

"You might find a lot of regurgitated platitudes but I can't imagine a piece of software being capable of producing something that would stop you in your tracks. Not until we get truly intelligent computers."

The Loebner Prize of $100,000 was set up as an offer to the first computer program to convince testers that it was human through two-way communication. No-one has won that prize yet but it could be that the written word, without interaction, could provide a more immediate way to confuse the reader as to who or what is writing.

And then a different sort of prize could only be a step away.

"I don't think the computer will win the Booker but no-one ever expected a computer to beat a chess grandmaster," says Reynolds.

"A normal tool in a mathematician's tool kit is the computer. 100 years ago, it would be considered heresy.

"The idea of a computer winning the Nobel Prize for physics is not too unlikely, citing a computer as joint recipient. It's obviously not a huge leap to think of something similar happening in fiction."

Note: To Felicity is written by the poet Luke Wright. To Truth is written by computer software

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