From the Tech Desk
What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Starts Writing Books?
"The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound."
In 1949, George Orwell published the ultimate dystopian novel in the form of 1984. As probably goes without saying, the book remains incredibly influential and important to this day. Its peek into a haunting and dangerous future has been parlayed into an entire movement of young adult novels, from The Hunger Games to the Divergent series. As for politics, the book is an indictment of government, war, socialist politics, and surveillance that seems as applicable to today's zeitgeist as it ever has.
There are a lot of big ideas going on in 1984, to the point where it's easy to just discuss the surface themes without delving deeper into how those themes actually manifest themselves in the story. When I read this book my senior year of high school, though, the part that struck me most was a smaller nuanced idea tucked somewhere in the middle of the book, about how the superstate of Oceania has no genuine music. Instead, as the passage above illuminates, songs are composed "for the benefit of the proles" by a mechanical computer instrument. Music, this incredibly life-affirming and human form of expression, had been twisted into something insidious and inhumane. In a novel filled with grievances against humanity, that one always struck me as the cruelest.
Of course, 1984 came and went and we're still not dealing with the horrifying results of the versificator—though pop music may or may not have lost its human factor thanks to over-computerization and songwriting done by committee. However, according to an alarming article recently featured in Publisher's Weekly, the book world could one day soon be dominated by its own type of versificator.
The article, titled "What If Books Could Write Themselves?" was featured in PW in early April, in the midst of London Book Fair 2016. Penned by Edward Nawotka, the brief but thought-provoking piece reviewed a London Book Fair presentation given by Guy Gadney, the founder and CEO of a company called To Play For. (To Play For is a startup that creates "games, interactive stories, and simulations using artificial intelligence.") Gadney's London Book Fair session was called "Books That Write Themselves: How the Rapid Rise of Artificial Intelligence Will Create a New Form of Publishing."
Sounding Orwellian enough for you? The good news is that, according to the Publisher's Weekly article, the future is perhaps not quite as radical as Gadney's session title suggests. In fact, right now, the technology that Gadney is talking about is more applicable to mobile apps and video games than it is to the average publisher or author. That fact makes sense, since Gadney was a developer behind "Sherlock: The Network," a licensed application for the BBC television program in which players can access exclusive video and audio content, play games, and work through an entire mystery narrative. While this app allows players to unfold a new Sherlock Holmes story, though—and while Sherlock Holmes is a famed literary character—mobile apps and video games remain distinctly separate from books.
Still, Gadney has his roots in book publishing, so he's a voice worth listening to on this particular subject. He was the first head of multimedia for Penguin Books UK, before going on to found and sell "bespoke digital solutions" company the Project Factory. As Publisher's Weekly noted, Gadney's ideas might relate more to apps right now, but that fact could change in the near-future—especially with personalization and interactivity trends on the rise in book publishing. (PW specifically namedropped Put Me in the Story, a brand of personalized children's books created by Chicago-area indie publisher Sourcebooks.)
Gadney's vision is less about books writing themselves from start to finish and more about authors and publishers figuring out ways to integrate "AI-driven storytelling" into their works. In such a scenario, there would be a basic framework to the book and the story, with characters and whole narrative segments already written by the author. These books would also have sections where readers could interact with the story or characters in exciting and unpredictable ways. In the PW article, Edward Nawotka says AI could allow "characters to react differently to individual readers."
As readers, authors, and publishing industry professionals who have spent their lives interacting with set-in-stone print books, it's hard to imagine a version of publishing where we might cede part of the storytelling duties to artificial intelligence. Sure, for years, publishing has been toying with ways to let readers to "choose their own adventure," with authors creating multiple twists or endings to their books and letting readers decide which to follow. Gadney's vision seems to be the next step to that idea, where each reader would have a unique reading experience, but where not even the author of the book would know all of the potential outcomes of the story.
At the London Book Fair, Gadney said these AI-driven books might look a bit like "The Suspect," a mobile application in which players assume the role of a police interrogator trying to get valuable information out of a suspected criminal. The twist is that, while you're questioning the suspect and trying to get information about him, he already has information about you—thanks to the way the app links up with your social media accounts. As a result, the character is able to interact with the player on a personal level. Even driven by IBM's Watson AI tech, though, "The Suspect" had to be mostly pre-written by programmers, which means we're probably still years or even decades away from books actually "writing themselves."
Gadney's thoughts on the future of books are fascinating, to say the least, but they're also a bit horrifying. Sure, a book that interacts with you isn't necessarily the same thing as the Orwellian concept of a machine creating lifeless art with no human factor to speak out. Still, the thought of surrendering up the creative control of their books to artificial intelligence isn't something that most authors are going to want to do, and for good reason. Like music, writing and storytelling are very human forms of expression. Losing that humanity for the cheap thrill of a character who reads your social feeds probably isn't something publishing needs.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.