John Ostrander, WriterBot 3000

My good friend and fellow ComicMix columnist Denny O’Neil and I were talking once upon a time about the necessity of comics. The point he made was that comics, certainly as we know them, are not something that needs to exist. He pointed out that early automobiles had, on the running board, a place to hold a buggy whip. Why? Because people expected them. As time went by, the buggy whip holder and the buggy whip itself disappeared. Technology had made them superfluous.

I have comforted myself on my choice of occupations. As a writer, I can’t be replaced by a robot. That may not be as true anymore and possibly, in the future, I could become a buggy whip.

Writer robots are already at work in journalism and odds are that you’ve read one. The Associated Press uses them to generate articles on quarterly business earnings. They also generate sports stories. Granted, they are basic and dry but the kind of stories that bots generate have always been that way. The bots can do it quickly and cheaply.

The AP claims that no journalist has lost his/her job to a bot… yet. They say that using the bots frees the reporter to write more incisive stories. The reports that the bots file are drudge work and automated systems are great at relieving us from drudge work. The AP files 3,000 such stories every quarter. According to Automated Insights, the company whose Wordsmith program generates these reports, that’s ten times what AP reporters and editors produced before the program was introduced. That makes AP a lot more money.

That’s journalism. What about creative writing? The Entertainment Intelligence Lab has a program called Scherazade that generates stories. On the website they say: “We present a novel class of story generation system – called an Open Story Generator – that can generate stories in an unknown domain. Our system, Scheherazade, (a) automatically learns a domain model by crowdsourcing a corpus of narrative examples and (b) generates stories by sampling from the space defined by the domain model.”

I’ve read at least one of the stories that Scheherazade has generated and it does basic storytelling in a very pedantic way. It’s not compelling reading but it is a complete story – written by a computer algorithm.  Give it a topic and it will generate a story.

Likewise, MetaphorMagnet from the Creative Language System Group at the Department of Computer Science, University College Dublin, has a Twitter account where it generates creative metaphors such as “So I’m not the courtliest courtier in the entourage. More like the most uncouth cowboy in the posse.” @MetaphorMagnet I will admit, I like that one.

(By the way, this all came to my attention first via Science Friday on NPR.)

Most of us will have heard the theorem that a monkey hitting a keyboard over an infinite amount of time will type the collected works of Shakespeare. Will a computer algorithm? I’m not so sure. On the other hand, could it produce E l James of 50 Shades of Gray? By all accounts (I haven’t read the book myself), given the quality of the prose, the answer may be yes.

More to the point, at least for me, is could I be replaced by a computer program. If you took an algorithm and fed it my works, and it picked up on my style, my way of expressing myself, my themes, my plots, could the program detect a pattern and create a new story in my style?

My problem with the whole “computer as a creative writer” concept is that, while it’s an interesting exercise, there will be something essential lacking in its attempt to tell stories. We use stories to distill the human experience and computers lack that. (Although I wonder whether certain writers have that ability.) As humans, we are all storytellers and we use story every day to explain life to ourselves and others. Computers simply don’t have that and I don’t think you can program them to compensate.

Mind you, I think some publishers would like to try. The money-people often see writers and artists just as widgets, one being as replaceable as another. If they could get a reasonable facsimile of the plots and stories from a computer and save a shit-load of money in the process, wouldn’t they want to do it? Oh, I can see it.

And, after all, what is our brains but our own most personal computers? My brain generates stories by picking from here, from there, from this fact, that memory and piecing it all together. What do I do that eventually a computer couldn’t do? Not in the near future, maybe not in my lifetime, but – who knows?

We writers may some day wind up being the buggy whips on the running boards of literature.

Cue HAL.

This article was generated on the iJohnO 3000.