The Rise Of The Intelligent Authors
Will new means of writing uncover a path to more enlightened literature?
Over the past century, the pursuit and accumulation of scientific fact has come to be seen as a central measure of human progress, with the dominant perception being that facts are important while fiction is at best superfluous.
Reading a novel or watching a film is seen as something to do only after a hard day of productivity, a day discerning “facts” in whatever area of work you are engaged, yet there is increasing evidence that we as humans live our lives within a realm of fictions.
We appear preconditioned to accept stories and embed them in the deepest fabric of our societies. Grand fictions such as nationhood, religion and capitalism have sculpted the modern world and yet it is the ability to determine facts that is generally seen as the more vital human trait.
“We cooperate with millions of stranger if and only if we all believe in the same fictional stories. The human superpower is really based on fiction. As far we know we are the only animal that can create and believe in fictional stories. And all large scale human cooperation is based on fiction.”
~Yuval Noah Harari
In this essay I argue that the coming rise of artificial intelligence and automation presents a threat to our way of life not only because we will be much worse than machines at determining facts but also because we will, in all likelihood, be worse at creating fictions.
Recommendations For The Useless
In the coming years it seems certain that machine learning algorithms, connected to global networks of sensors and data sources, will increasingly outperform us when it comes to assessing what is factually correct.
Whether it is judging stock price movements, medical diagnosis or working out the emotional state of another person, computer systems are already beating humans at some of the tasks we pride ourselves on most and improvements are happening rapidly.
At present, professionals take years of training to become experts within their profession, and to understand what the real issues in their field are yet in the future large swathes of jobs will likely disappear.
If in the future nobody is trained, because machines can analyse the information better than any human, how then can we sensibly discuss what is fact and what is not?
The historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari talks about the rise of a ‘useless class’, incapable of doing anything better than the machines, and while there is no certainty how technology will play out it seems certain that in future a huge majority of people — from radiographers to economists — will not be needed to do the sort of fact-based jobs we do today.
How To Read A Book
Where will that leave us as humans? With less and less people spending their days determining facts, our relationship to fact and fiction is likely to change dramatically. This is likely to be noticeable when it comes to the most commonly accepted form of fiction, the novel.
“The fact is that poetry is not the books in the library . . . Poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.”
~Jorge Luis Borges
Already we are approaching a state where machines’ understanding of what we read is beyond that of the author in many areas. Amazon can already collect rudimentary data from millions of Kindles to understand how a particular reader interacts with a text -which bits we read quickly, where we slowdown or stop — and extrapolate this to provide recommendations based on our personality.
This analysis of the interaction between a reader and a text will only get more finessed as we add more sensors, more readers and more computing power. The algorithms will know exactly which tracts push your buttons. They will know what you enjoy reading better than you do.
“Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, computer programs need never forget,”
~Yuval Noah Harari
Whether you want a thrilling yarn about swords and sorcery or a enlightening philosophical novel the AI will be able to tailor recommendations to you personally, will understand exactly which stories you will react to.
The Next Step For Authorship
If we take this thought even further we can see it is not unlikely that once this data and these machine learning tools are available we will also be re-engineer these same tools so that the machines can become the authors themselves.
The algorithms may not ‘understand’ what they are writing but they will know exactly what to write to push our buttons. Earlier this year Google announced upgrades to its Translate service that bring the machine processing closer than ever to the way humans use language, analyzing text at the sentence-level rather than individual words.
Once this approach is refined and improved it is certainly not impossible that machine will outperform humans when it comes to producing a whole book. In fact they almost do already.
“Neural translation is a lot better than our previous technology, because we translate whole sentences at a time, instead of pieces of a sentence… This makes for translations that are usually more accurate and sound closer to the way people speak the language.”
~Barak Turovsky, product lead at Google Translate
What is more a machine can write a book instantly. It can write a hundred books. Millions. One for every customer. An endless series of sequels tailored just for you. A made-to-measure novel for your individual personality , your ideal read.
The ability for any human author to compete commercially would be impossible. What author could possibly make a living. Who would even bother reading their book? There may be a sub-culture that enjoys “artisanal books”, hand-crafted by a human author, but ultimately those books will just not be as enjoyable to read.
How would a human author produce a best-seller when a machine can produce a million perfectly designed novels in a fraction of the time. The algorithm will know what you have already read, what you yearn for, what will appear new and fresh and what will appear stale.
What then does that leave for humans do? What is the purpose of writing fiction in a world where machines can do it so much better? Will that bring an end to the human desire to create fiction to explore it through the act of writing?
An Axe For The Frozen Sea
One possibility is that we will utilize the tools provided to forge a new form of writing. The reader themselves may become the author, curating their own stream of words, generated by machine.
After all, the writing process is not about being better at typing, or holding a pen or copyediting or learning a series of plot rules or character development concepts.
It is, or should be, about precisely those things that machines are now improving at — pushing our buttons. The question is not whether these tools will be better than humans at eliciting a response but which responses we choose the machines to elicit.
For some the novels they choose will be potboilers, formulaic, unchallenging thrills but for others, those seeking an epiphany or a deeper consciousness of the world around them, the tools will themselves be a part of writing a new literature.
The technology may empower the more adventurous readers to craft their own path through a constantly evolving literature, with the aid of computer tools to write their own bibles, their own books of awakenings.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
This literature will most probably look nothing like the system of authorship and commercial publishing we currently have but it is possible that at least some humans will try to harness these tools to craft new fictions for the next century.
Imagine if every book you read gave you a moment of awakening, was as powerful as a sacred text, the axe to the frozen sea inside. Imagine if, instead of spending hours ploughing through books that you later realize are a waste of time, your reading habits themselves became part of the act of creation — an organic never-ending exploration of the possibility of language.
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An edited version of this article was originally published in Philosophy Now, Issue 123.