Can Computers Write Books?

300px-Monkey-typingWhat’s that thing about monkeys typing Shakespeare? Give an abstract device an infinite amount of time to produce a endless string of random linguistic symbols and there is a technically a non-zero probability that such a “monkey” will eventually hit upon any existing piece of literature, the theorem goes. In other words, pure chance can be highly creative. In the 1960s, movements like the Oulipo imposed certain constraints on their work, following certain patterns (the most famous example may be the experimental novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, written without the letter e). With these algorithms, the creative act becomes a calculable operation. The result may or may not be inherently meaningful. In the case of the monkey, the result would be as meaningful as the original, but would not arrive for the duration of our universe. Some people are even programming computerto produce books. Phillip Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School, has patented a program that can receive a small amount of information mimic the thought process of an expert. The process takes thirteen minutes, and Parker claims to be able to program romance novels and even rudimentary poetry (the program has produced over 2oo,000 books). Recently I’ve thought about this phenomenon after encountering Google Voice transcripts for my phone messages, which produce hilarious and even brilliant errors:

“Bye bye. Thank you very much catch her to work Hi. This past sorry it is, actually some fire Yeah, okay. Alright friends and I’ll pass. Something written about it’s all right with you, cool trying to heydude fresh. We know with the Ohh,  Ohh I’m calling about the truck I guess.”


How would the meaning be changed if I told you what the caller was actually saying? In the digital age, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” seems especially prescient. What will happen to creativity? I like this quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined, out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Maybe he meant a computer, processing.


Via The Paris Review Daily (via Melville House Blog)

Image Credit 1 and 2.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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