Let the Robot Write!

Let the Robot Write!

 

The first time he heard of the existence of a robot that writes fiction, Pat T. Knight, bestselling author of detective novels, laughed. How could a machine, let’s face it, barely more than a program, ever be capable of conceiving a coherent, innovative book that would keep its audience on the edge of their seats from the first to the last page?

“Truth be told, many of the stories written by robots have their inventors as co-writers,” Leyla, his editor, admitted.

They were having lunch in a pub on Shaftesbury Avenue close to the headquarters of the Centauri Publishing House in London.

“All the sentences that gave you goosebumps turned out to be human rather than robot written,” she added.

“Such as?” Pat asked taking a copious bite out of his burger.

“The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.”[1].

“I see why some might find it rather alarming.”

“The author must have done it on purpose. There are two sides to the robot argument: those who are afraid of them and those who see the massive benefits society will reap from them. The first think that once robots will surpass human intelligence and be able to work independently from us, logically, they will no longer find any use for us and they’ll eliminate humans. The other side thinks they’ll always be like dogs. Loyal, incapable of finding meaning without their masters.”

“And they think a writing robot might reveal the real feelings robots harbor for the human race?”

“Something like that. Although that would imply they have their own thoughts and feelings.”

“Ah, you see, that’s the problem with people, we tend to humanize everything. We’re simply too sentimental. I mean, my father used to talk to his car as if it were his child. Some people hold weddings for dogs.”

“Still, I don’t see you throwing away Churchill’s bust from your office in Tunbridge Wells,” Leyla pointed out with a smile.

“How could I ever throw away Winston! He was my inspiration for detective Norton,” he said with a tender smile. “Well, there you have it, a human flaw! We are maybe – all of us – hopelessly sentimental! But I see you’ve been giving this a lot of thought…”

“Of course, we looked into it. It’s something revolutionary that could have a colossal impact on our field. You know, Associated Press is already using a robot for most of its articles with too many numbers. Apparently, it’s pretty efficient.”

“God save the journalists. As if their jobs weren’t bad enough. But I see how such articles could be generated automatically. They usually follow a pretty standard pattern, don’t they? X stocks were sold at Y price on Z date.”

“Yes, you’re right, but just think of the books Centauri publishes. Let’s be honest, we don’t really go for the highbrow market. We publish what sells and has a niche: thrillers, horror, fantasy, SF. A lot of the time it feels like they come out on a conveyor belt, following similar patterns and tropes, a lot just cheap copies of one truly original book. I mean, how many vampire books were there after Twilight, how many dystopias after the Hunger Games? They were like mushrooms after the rain. And the writers know very well what they’re doing, regurgitating the same old popular ideas. Couldn’t a robot possibly do the same?”

Pat felt like Leyla was including him in that definition as well. Sure, he wrote a novel a year, but how else was he supposed to make a living out of writing otherwise? His books sold millions of copies worldwide, they were always on the bestseller lists. What did it matter that many wouldn’t remember much about them a week after they’ve read them? The point was that they bought them, they were left with a vaguely pleasant recollection and the next time they saw his name taking up the better part of a jacket, like Pavlovian dogs trained by Centauri’s efficient marketing machine, they would buy the next one and the cycle would restart. He had discovered the recipe for success! There was nothing wrong with that.

On the train on his way back to Tunbridge Wells, Leyla’s words kept coming back to Pat: We looked into it. WE looked into it.

***

Two years later, when Pat T. Knight heard his publishing house bought a robot that could write, he was curious. He made an appointment with Leyla and asked her to show him the miracle machine. He was vaguely disappointed when he was put in front of a computer.

“I thought it was a robot…”

Leyla chuckled:

“What, you thought it would have a body and hands to write with? Those would be writing machines rather than writing robots. It doesn’t need anything of the sort.”

“How tedious,” Pat sighed.

“You and the SF department! They all came flocking to see it. They were expecting the Terminator or at least Wall-e.”

“Terminator?”

“You know, the death of the writing profession. So on and so forth.”

“Nonsense! It can’t write a novel. Didn’t you say it yourself, they always need a coauthor?”

“Things have evolved, Pat. That was two years ago. The idea gained some popularity. There were all these writing contests for computer generated texts. A lot of people got involved and when enough specialists put their heads together, inevitably, there’s a breakthrough.”

“So it can write by itself now?” he looked with a frown at the screen where a single blinking line told him the robot was online and awaiting instructions.

Was it listening to them? Had someone installed a microphone? He looked around the screen, but couldn’t find anything.

“Everything it writes needs to be reviewed and it’s not always intelligible, but we’ve had a certain level of success with certain types of texts. It managed to write a novel very similar in plot with Pretty Woman for example.”

Pat laughed:

“And how much did you have to pay for this masterpiece?”

“Considering it’s the most efficient writing robot in the world at the moment and we had to import it straight out of a research lab in Japan, it’s safe to say, a lot.”

“Ugh, have you nothing better to spend your money on? I know a handful of eager young writers looking for a publishing house that would probably do a better job.”

“It’s a risk, that’s true enough, but if it pays off…just think of the publicity! People will buy a book written by a robot out of simple curiosity. It doesn’t even have to necessarily be good, just coherent enough.”

It was a premise that could go viral. Everybody would clamor to judge such a book, even people that wouldn’t normally bother to open one.

A year after the acquisition of the writing robot that was dubbed RoboWriter – to leave no doubt as to Centauri’s intention of getting as much out of the notoriety of books without a human author as possible – its first novel, In the Dead of Night, was published with much pomp. As Leyla predicted, RoboWriter’s fame was instantaneous and it spread like wildfire across the internet, TV and newspapers. They had built him a completely useless robot body, with a square head and Lego figurine arms. The idea behind the design was, according to Leyla, harmlessness and cuteness. It looked good in pictures and sparked the imagination of children to such an extent that the publishing house had started considering releasing a line of toys and stationary with his image. The book was sold out in a month and Centauri upset its very busy editorial schedule to squeeze in a second edition, just weeks after.

Various authors were invited to give their opinion about the meaning of its success and all the book reviewers in the world, it seemed, had published an article about it. The consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t a bad book, some even said it was pretty good, but it wasn’t very original and it most certainly wasn’t a work of art.

Pat also bought a copy to judge for himself what Centauri’s robot was capable of. He felt a shudder go through his body when he realized it was a detective novel and it sounded eerily similar to something Agatha Christie might have written.

***

Two years later, Pat and Leyla happened to meet in Charing Cross Station at the ticket machines and decided to have coffee together before each boarded their intended train. They hadn’t seen each other for a few months, since Pat had told Leyla he would be taking a little break from writing. He had grown tired with the rush of writing a new book every year and, being a well-known author, he could afford to skip a launch or two if he wanted. His books were still being sold in bookstores so there was no risk of the public forgetting him anytime soon.

“How are RoboWriter’s sales going?” Pat asked at one point.

“Decently, but the novelty’s passed. Now he’s just a dime a dozen writer. He doesn’t fit in very well with our more successful writers,” she admitted.

“Maybe you should give him an update,” Pat said laughing, but Leyla only smiled:

“That’s exactly what we did. The lab in Japan hasn’t been sleeping. It’s been three years since we bought the first version, they’ve made some massive improvements. Of course, it cost us a fortune, but considering the success of In the Dead of Night, we could afford it.”

“And? Has old Robo turned into Shakespeare?” The conversation was starting to make him uneasy.

“He can write a print-ready novel in 46 minutes now. And he can take criticisms, he remembers every comment that was made to him and applies it for future use. It’s more than I can say for some writers. Our editing time for his novels has been greatly reduced. We’re mostly checking them just to be sure everything’s all right rather than out of need.”

That meant that, in roughly 9 hours, RoboWriter could produce the same number of books Pat. T. Knight had written in his entire writing career.

“Not that that’s necessarily an advantage, mind you. Readers always say they can’t wait to read a writer’s next book, but they’d get bored pretty quickly if they could read a new one every day. The big change is that he can now connect to the internet and keep up with the news and trending topics.”

“Won’t he produce only garbage that way? What could a machine possibly understand from that endless strain of information?” Pat scoffed.

“It’s called Big Data, Pat. With the right kind of algorithms and computing power, he can filter and concentrate the information. RoboWriter can follow global trends in writing and entertainment and predict the next hot topic that will be a hit. He can also combine real events with available writing patterns and create new novels through them.”

“I never asked, but where do these patterns come from?”

“Oh, he makes them himself, but he mostly takes his inspiration from our backlog. Copyright issues. He’s already devoured all the books Centauri’s ever published. What he writes right now, is, ironically, a combination of all of our most popular writers.”

“You should rename him Centauri. Did you give him my books too?”

“Yes, of course. We thought of letting him go through all the public domain books, but we were afraid he’d start to sound like Dickens.”

RoboWriter’s next book, The Front Runners, was a resounding success. It combined elements of crime and suspense with a few very current themes with such ingenuity that the public was under the impression no other writer had ever written a book so relevant and captivating at the same time. The Front Runners found itself on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

***

Pat did not find his inspiration in the second year either, but, with his savings starting to dwindle, he found another way to solve his writer’s block. He spoke to Lily Stuart, a writer who had to teach creative writing at a secondhand university to earn a living, and she found him a talented and unknown young author, a Damian Pratt, who would have killed to be published by Centauri and convinced him to collaborate on a book together. Convinced was perhaps too strong a word, Damian would have probably walked through fire for a chance to work with the great Pat T. Knight.

What did this collaboration mean? Basically, that Damian would write a book under Pat’s guidance and with his corrections, and when it would be published, it would appear with Pat’s name prominently displayed on the jacket and Damian’s in smaller lettering underneath it. It was a win-win situation. Pat would no longer have to wrack his brains for new ideas and Damian would benefit from Pat’s over 15 years of experience in the literary field.

The result of this collaboration, The Maelstrom, sold pretty well, but was thoroughly rejected by critics and reviewers as a far too amateurish work for the likes of a colossus like Pat T. Knight.

“Just tell them you wanted to help the boy get a good head start in the publishing world,” Leyla suggested on the phone. “Just like that, from the goodness of your heart.”

While Centauri passed on Damian as a writer in his own right, a smaller publishing house in Oxford was eager to give him a chance. As a consequence, Pat was left without a coauthor. But once the story of the collaboration had gotten out, Pat had started receiving dozens of emails from his official website from aspiring young writers that wanted nothing more than to write a book for him. Pat hesitated. If he continued like this, what would happen to his reputation?

Meanwhile, RoboWriter had not won the Man Booker, but had started publishing two books a year, all so shockingly honest and relevant to current affairs that public opinion had started saying:

“We live in an age when the truest mirror of our society is held up by a robot.”

“The voice of our generation is turning out to be a robot. How fitting!”

As they dined in Covent Garden one evening, Pat congratulated Leyla:

“It seems your gamble with RoboWriter paid off. The voice of a generation! Hundreds of writers are positively green with envy over it.”

“I’m sure they are,” Leyla smiled weakly. “The truth is RoboWriter can now guess exactly what they want to hear. The public’s worried about the Amazon? RoboWriter takes three reports from WWF, Greenpeace and the UN and transforms them into a sweeping sylvan epic full of indigenous heroes and monstrous exploiters that casually informs its readers of all those dry numbers all the journalists of the world are unsuccessfully trying to make attractive. People are talking about Tesla’s newest electric motor? RoboWriter takes a few futurology treaties and its user manual and creates a much too probable story of a society revolutionized by new patents. But you know what the problem is?”

“What?” Pat asked feeling discouraged.

“We’re not even using 1% of his real potential.”

“Well yes, but didn’t you say people would get bored if he published a new book every day?”

“Yes, if they were all his books. But you know, now that his patterning system’s been perfected, it’s much easier for him to write in a genre and style we ask of him.”

“I suppose that could have its own merit. Something like new Jane Austen novels by RoboWriter. You could do a whole series, have him imitate different authors. It’s bound to be popular. Although I would think it would be a step back from what he’s doing now. Although, considering it takes him 46 minutes to write a novel now, I suppose he could easily do both.”

“It’s not a bad idea, but that’s not what management had in mind,” Leyla hesitated. “They’re wondering whether RoboWriter couldn’t help our authors that are, you know, struggling to write or meet deadlines.”

“Like me?” he choked on the words.

“What’s the difference between having a human coauthor or a robotic one? No one has to know he helped you.”

Because the damn robot can write dozens of novels in a day, that’s why! He wanted to yell, but managed to keep quiet.

He was furious when he returned home that night. He made himself a strong coffee, nodded towards Churchill’s bust and sat down in front of his computer. He had a will power, damn it! He would MAKE himself write a new novel.

***

A week after he unsuccessfully tried to force himself to write something, Pat called Leyla and gave his consent for RoboWriter to be used as his coauthor. It took the robot 34 minutes and 15 seconds to write a novel. When Pat sat down to review it, he realized there was nothing to correct. There were fewer mistakes in the novel than Pat regularly had in the final draft of one of his novels.

Entitled Smoke in November, Pat T. Knight’s 16th novel, was published without RoboWriter ever being mentioned, and was praised by readers and reviewers alike as a comeback of the great genius of the detective novel. All those that had criticized him for his collaboration with Damian before hastily took back their words. Pat however did not add a copy of Smoke in November to his library that contained every edition ever published of his novels in the UK and abroad.

***

In the next year, Pat finally managed to write a new novel that he was very proud of and that, he was sure, would be greeted with great enthusiasm by the English public. Leyla asked him to stop by the publishing house to discuss the manuscript.

“It’s genius, isn’t it?” Pat said with a pleased smile. Leyla however seemed a bit embarrassed.

“Pat…there’s no other way to say this,” she sighed. “The publishing house wasn’t expecting you to recover from your writer’s block so soon.”

“Soon? It took me three years!” he frowned.

“The problem is we’ve already chosen a novel that will be published this year under the name of Pat T. Knight.”

“What do you mean? It’s the first I’ve heard of it and you can’t publish anything under my name without my consent!”

And let’s not even mention the money, he added internally.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Legally speaking, your name isn’t Pat T. Knight, it’s Patrick Dunstable. Remember? You allowed us to register your pseudonym as a Centauri trademark after cheap imitators started cropping up.”

“So that’s it? You can’t be bothered with humans anymore?” Pat was starting to get angry.

“It’s a question of costs. After no one realized you didn’t write Smoke in November, management started asking themselves questions about the necessity of the writers. Why should we continue to pay them and keep RoboWriter functioning at 1%? The truth is, if we’d allow him to function at 2% he could write all the books we publish in a year in only a few days.”

“But you can’t do that to all the writers!” Pat was appalled.

“You’re right, we can only do that to authors whose pseudonyms are under Centauri ownership. Just 25 of the 500 authors we work with, but, either way, it’s a financial gain for us.”

Pat was boiling already.

“If it’s any consolation, I opposed it. But in the end if people can’t differentiate between you and a robot, what’s the point anymore?”

“But people will know! You can’t have launches without me. My face is associated with the name!”

“Maybe the reviewers and the journalists that usually come to the launches will realize it, as for the general public, I don’t think they will care either way.”

“I’m going to boycott the publishing house!”

“I wish you wouldn’t. You have a confidentiality agreement with us.”

There was a moment of silence in which Leyla’s palpable pity and Pat’s futile anger dueled each other in the bitter air.

“Listen, Pat, maybe the readers can’t tell the difference between novels written by you and RoboWriter under the Pat T. Knight name, but you’ve been in this industry for 15 years. You know a lot of people, you have a lot of connections. Publishing houses are going to rush at the chance to publish you.”

“Publishing houses that don’t have robots!” Pat said with disdain and left the office, closing the door with a bang behind him.

***

Pat moved to the Meridian Publishing House, Centauri’s biggest competitor and published his novel, not without a certain amount of venom, under the pseudonym Patrick Truman-Knight that he registered as his personal trademark as soon as it was approved by Meridian. In sign of protest and solidarity, the other 24 writers that were forced out of Centauri because of RoboWriter, incorporated the penname Truman into their new literary alter-egos as well. This new influx of Trumen on the English writing market did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t long before one of the journalists of the literary section of the Times, Stephen Baker, discovered the editorial humiliation suffered in silence and indignation by over two dozen first hand English writers.

And while they could not reveal what had happened and how, they could admit that they were no longer the persons behind their well-known pseudonyms, but had migrated to other publishing houses.

“They must’ve changed their editorial policies and a lot of people were none too pleased,” Stephen had told himself. But looking up their names in trademark databases, it quickly became apparent that those that had taken their writing elsewhere were only those whose pseudonyms belonged to Centauri.

Maybe they wanted some fresh blood. Some of the authors that left, included Pat T. Knight, it was true, had grown a little stale.

Soon, contradictory information started reaching his ears. Centauri had announced its editorial schedule for the next year which was full of new authors, but literary agents were complaining the publishing house hadn’t accepted a manuscript from them in over two years and on their website it clearly stated they accepted no unsolicited submissions.

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked a colleague from the music section as they ate their lunch together. “It’s that robot.”

“RoboWriter?” he hadn’t even considered such an outlandish explanation. “But…it comes out with a novel every six months now. It wouldn’t have the time.”

“It’s a robot, Stephen,” Claire shook her head. “You know, you and I are lucky because we write on topics that require human appreciation, a deeper understanding of a subject after years spent analyzing it, but the whole financial section has been reduced to two reporters and a robot. Think about the fact it can produce 2000 articles in a second.”

“God,” whistled Stephen.

After this illuminating lunch, Stephen contacted some of the writers that had left Centauri and got the confirmation, off the record, that they had been replaced by RoboWriter. He then tried to find out who the aspiring writers the publishing house was trying to launch were and only managed to come across them on Centauri’s list of registered trademarks. The pictures that were displayed on the publishing house’s website of them turned out to be of unknown actors they were paying measly sums to interpret these roles. An editor eventually cracked and made Centauri’s entire campaign of lies public.

“They were just trying to make full use of the robot,” he told the Times. “They knew the public wasn’t ready to accept so many books written by a single author, no matter how diverse they would have been as genre and content.”

A massive scandal rocked London’s editorial world and Centauri suffered major losses. Under threat of legal action, it had to withdraw all the books written by its false new authors.

The scandal generated a certain amount of sympathy for RoboWriter online with comments such as: “Let the robot write! Don’t limit RoboWriter just because you can’t read as fast as he writes!” cropping up more and more frequently on social media. Suddenly, RoboWriter became a tragic figure that could not express its entire literary impulse because of human limitations.

Because of this, Centauri managed to bounce back spectacularly the following year when it started publishing RoboWriter’s books under different pseudonyms: RoboAdventure, RoboRomance, RoboSF, RoboFantasy, RoboCrime and RoboThriller. On their jackets, the image constructed for RoboWriter wore different outfits inspired by the different genres he was writing. RoboWriter’s supporters were very pleased and the fact the publishing house published a new book of his everyday digitally was seen as a sign that the robot could finally write to his circuits’ content. In fact, he was functioning only at 0.1932% of his true capacity. Leyla’s estimations were purely illustrative.

***

[1] http://www.bustle.com/articles/149887-a-computer-wrote-a-novel-and-nearly-won-a-literary-prize-for-it, A Computer Wrote A Novel — And Nearly Won A Literary Prize For It, Emma Oulton, 24.03.2016.

About Andrada Cooș

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