Science fiction — yes, really

Science fiction — yes, really

Various folks are getting excited by reports that a computer has been caught writing fiction. Here, for example, is a breathless piece in the New York Times:

“With little fanfare and (so far) no appearances at Barnes & Noble, computers have started writing without us scribes. They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out.”

Oh yeah? Well, let’s see what this machine turns out. Ah, here’s the beginning of a short story dealing with the theme of betrayal:

“Dave Striver loved the university – its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one’s dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving.”

You’re right — it sounds suspiciously like the work of Jeffrey Archer. But it’s claimed to be the output of ‘Brutus.1’, a program written by Selmer Bringsjord of Rensselaer’s Department of Cognitive Science and David A. Ferrucci, a researcher at I.B.M. Bringsjord’s web page tells us that “Brutus.1 represents the first step in engineering an artificial agent that ‘appears’ to be genuinely creative. We have attempted to do that by, among other things, mathematizing the concept of betrayal through a series of algorithms and data structures, and then vesting Brutus.1 with these concepts. The result, Brutus.1, is the world’s most advanced story generator. We use Brutus.1 in support of our philosophy of Weak Artificial Intelligence — basically, the view that computers will never be genuinely conscious, but computers can be cleverly programmed to ‘appear’ to be, in this case, literarily creative.”

Well, if a klutz like Archer can mime creativity, then I suppose some computer code could too. But isn’t that notion of “mathematizing the concept of betrayal through a series of algorithms and data structures” just cute?