Tuesday’s news about Harry Potter getting the AI treatment reminded me of a similar story from last week.
Last week Wired published an SF story that was not so much written by an AI as it was written under an AI’s editorial oversight (the kind of writing assistance I expect all writers will have one day).
The AI was developed by University of Toronto professor Adam Hammond (English) and Dr Julian Brooke (CS PhD), and was used by SF author Stephen Marche to write a new story in the style of several of his favorite authors. Marche selected the works he wanted to emulate. Brooke and Hammond then analyzed the stories and came up with a list of 14 stylistic rules to guide the writing process, and:
Hammond and Brooke created a web-based interface through which their algorithm, called SciFiQ, could tell me, on the textual equivalent of the atomic level, how closely every single detail of my writing matched the details in my 50 favorite works. (I’m talking “nouns per 100 words” level.) When I typed in a word or phrase and it was more than a little different than what SciFiQ had in mind, the interface would light up red or purple. When I fixed the offending word or phrase, the interface would turn green.
The key, obviously, was the texts that I selected: “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Father-Thing” by Philip K. Dick, “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury—I can’t list them all, but you get the idea. I wanted to write something incredible, so I picked stories I thought were incredible. Whether that’s what I got might be another story.
You can read the story over at Wired. It isn’t very good; it was shown to two experts in a blind test, and they thought it was “Full of unnecessary detail, wooden, implausible dialog “.
What I found most interesting about this story is how the writing process parallels any other act of writing. Marche had rules to follow, and like an English teacher the AI dinged his writing whenever he departed from the rules.
In the same way that knowing when to ignore writing rules can lead to a better story, this marginal story could have been improved if Marche had identified when he could ignore the AI’s rules and write what he felt the story needed.
We’re still a few years away from this type of writing tool being on everyone’s desk, but it’s not too early to remind us all that this is a tool used by writers, not their replacement or their boss.