Could a computer write a book?

Some might recall the scene from the film “I, Robot” where Will Smith debates a robot about which life form — human or robotic — is superior. He asks the robot whether it can compose a beautiful symphony or paint a masterpiece. “Can you?” the robot replies.

Interestingly, computer software is composing award-winning classical music. (And, like humans, it’s also composing plenty of crap.) So Smith’s sneering question may be moot.

Yesterday I was wondering, could a computer write a book? Could it write a nonfiction history text for example? Let’s presume the process would be this: a piece of software goes out and spiders the Internet for all webpages related to key words defined for its topic. Let’s use the Civil War as an example. Then the software somehow corrals that information into a general structure, probably based in chronology and perhaps key figures. It might create some kind of advanced schema where information is loaded into various “objects.” For example, Jefferson Davis would be an object with attributes like appearance, birthdate, character etc. And the year 1864 would be an object with various attributes. All this information would be interconnected, and the software — applying some rules about the English language and the structure of historical text — would spit out a book.

Now I have little doubt that this book would be flawed, and would need a human editor to go in and massage the text, but I think this sort of thing is possible, if not now, soon.

Of course, if the software is pulling all its information from the Web, it has a good chance of finding phony material. There might be some website out there that says the Civil War was initiated by an Elvis clone who traveled back in time in his UFO. How do you weed phony information out? A good way to start would be to triple source every fact. And, if the software could not validate certain facts, I see no reason why it couldn’t simply e-mail a noted historian for confirmation. Imagine getting an e-mail from a piece of software writing a book. That would totally blow your wigwam!

Now, how about fiction — could a computer write that? I’m reminded of the fact that Lester Dent, author of the Doc Savage pulp fiction novels, had a “master fiction plot” — basically a plot template which could be used to quickly generate ideas for novels. It doesn’t seem outlandish to presume that a computer could take such a plot generator, drop in various story elements, and using complex rules about the construction of language, generate a story.

5 thoughts on “Could a computer write a book?

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