This is not “assistance;” it’s play

Saw this via the Passive Voice blog:

Computer Stories: A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists

Robin Sloan has a collaborator on his new novel: a computer. … Mr. Sloan is writing his book with the help of home-brewed software that finishes his sentences with the push of a tab key. …

Mr. Sloan … composes by writing snippets of text, which he sends to himself as messages and then works over into longer passages. His new novel, which is still untitled, is set in a near-future California where nature is resurgent. The other day, the writer made this note: “The bison are back. Herds 50 miles long.” … He writes: The bison are gathered around the canyon. … What comes next? He hits tab. The computer makes a noise like “pock,” analyzes the last few sentences, and adds the phrase “by the bare sky.”

Mr. Sloan likes it. “That’s kind of fantastic,” he said. “Would I have written ‘bare sky’ by myself? Maybe, maybe not.”

Raise your hand if you think this method of composition sounds like LESS work than just writing the story out of your head.


Didn’t think so. This sounds kind of like fun, but it doesn’t sound like any kind of assistance. “By the bare sky,” says the algorithm, and there Sloan is, thinking, Oh, that’s a neat phrase. Then he has fit it in the passage somehow and, I presume, read through the paragraph to make sure it feels right. I mean, sounds good, reads smoothly, all those things the computer can’t begin to judge.

This kind of thing sounds A LOT like those twitter games where people start typing and report what text suggestion software suggests to finish the sentence. You know, things like:

My name is … Earl

I was born in … darkness

I once went … to a party dressed as a chicken.

All of the above are actually what Google just suggested for me, including that entire one about the chicken. Did not see that coming. Sounds to me quite a bit like The bison are gathered around the canyon … by the bare sky.

As a toy, this sounds kind of neat. As a tool, well, I’m not persuaded that’s a reasonable categorization.

Also, it’s not artificial intelligence. I read SF; I know what artificial intelligence REALLY looks like: Computers that are people. Definitely not the same thing as algorithms that spit out semi-random phrases at the touch of a key.

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3 thoughts on “This is not “assistance;” it’s play”

  1. Yeah, I’m not sure that’s collaboration as much as something to spark ideas when you’re stuck.

    A real AI would finish the novel, proofread it, send it to the editors, and deposit the royalty checks for you.

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