Robo-Written: New Computer Programs Tell Tales To You

Telling stories has been a way of preserving our history since before the first written word was ever scrawled onto some bark or chiseled into stone.  Now, like many other modern developments, we've figured out a way to make machines do it for us.

As reported by New Scientist, there are several computer programs that are currently capable of spitting out a story.  Or at least, the idea for one.  The program that does "write", called Scheherazade, will give you a tale that's not near Shakespeare, but might entertain a young reader learning to string sentences together.  Set in any world that the program can learn about via the internet, Scheherazade uses crowdsourcing to gain knowledge of actions and scenarios.  It then strings the actions together to form a story.  

While this requires a great deal of human interaction on the input and refinement level, the program can nonetheless create accurate historical timelines from information presented, as well as fairly detailed short stories.  According to Technovelgy, once the plot points are entered, Scheherazade then "clusters them based on semantic similarity to create plot events that unfold sequentially until a decision point is reached, at which point a new line of plot events and decision points is triggered."

Scheherazade is currently being developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology under a grant from DARPA, which wants to use the program as a means to develop instructional materials for the "online cultural training" of American troops.

"Online cultural training."  Sure, DARPA. You're surely not teaching your murderous robot army how to dream up evil plots.
(Image courtesy  

If you're not in the mood to be regaled and would rather write, a program can offer you a plausible (if possibly strange) character arc to work with.  The Flux Capacitor, a program being developed at University College in Dublin, uses a metaphor generator to create conflict via "role transitions."  These then become the inklings of a story, which are paired with the program's basic knowledge of the world, juxtaposed with characters that undergo a personal change.  

For example, the Flux Capacitor could take the concepts of "cool" and "angry", adhere them to the roles of "musicians" and "politicians", and generate the idea of, "What causes cool musicians to change their style of rock and roll, start a campaign, and become angry politicians?"  The "what causes" question prefaces each of the scenarios, which include two transitory notions before reaching the conclusion of the character arc. The Flux Capacitor uses @MetaphorMagnet twitter handle to assess its progress.

Then there's your simple "What If?" scenarios.  There's a program now for that, the What-If Machine, being developed at the University of London.  More of a computerized Mad Lib than anything you'd write a novel from, it nonetheless generates notions if you need them.  In addition to human, animal, and object scenarios, one can also make Kafkaesque or Surrealist what-ifs.  A Kafkaesque what-if (based off of the premise of "The Metamorphosis", whose lead character wakes up as a giant bug) might read, "What if there were a man who woke up as a manta ray, but he could still sing opera?"  A Surrealist scenario might read, "What if there were a computer who fell in love, but his only object of attraction was a malfunctioning toaster?"

That actually might not be too much of a Surrealist leap, anymore, considering computer programs are becoming advanced enough to write.  And what's writing if you're not doing it for love?  Just another string of code stringing together words.  Could computers learn enough about situational experiences enough to want to replicate them or experience them?  If they don't, in their stories, at what point do humans put in that ineffable touch of literary love?  Will there be a literary computer singularity, where a machine writes a book so good it fools humans?  

What if we just kept using our brainframes to imagine all these what-ifs on our own?  Can't we preserve a piece of art we still do as well, or better, than a computer?

Even if you do dream up and write the whole story on your own, you'll still want an editor.  That's where you can hire Hemingway, an editing app that pares down your excessive verbiage into the taut, tough style of the classic American author.  Robo-Hemingway highlights run-on sentences that you need to break up, adverbs that can be replaced with action verbs, polysyllabic words that you don't need to use to show off, and passive voicing to eliminate.  That last part, for those who may want to work on it manually, means it's more effective to say, "The artist lost money because the computer wrote the book", rather than "The money was lost by the artist because the book was written by the computer."

Although hopefully, neither you or the computer will ever have to write that.

The preceding article was 100% non-computer-generated.  Except for the research part.  They're pretty good at that.

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