Saturday 20 October 2018

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Writers?

By Nick Cross

The media is full of hype about technology in general, and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular. The Robots are Coming for our Jobs scream the headlines, and tech luminaries like Elon Musk warn us that super-intelligent computers could exterminate the human race. In this febrile atmosphere, it seems that no domain is safe from the incursions of AI, as proved by the recent New York Times article about a writer who uses AI to help finish his sentences. This does not, on the surface, seem like a particularly noble endeavour - my wife and I regularly finish each other's sentences without needing expensive algorithms to help us. But it's indicative of a wider trend, as companies seek to automate the production of text without pesky humans being involved.

But what's the reality of current efforts to write using computers? And will they eventually supplant our own efforts?

In order to answer these questions, it's necessary for me to take a short detour by explaining what AI actually is. Don't worry, I'll try to keep this understandable for humans by including cute animal pictures!

Photo by Smerikal

What we currently call AI is actually a technique called Machine Learning (ML). There are a few types of ML, but the version most used is called Supervised ML. To understand how it works, imagine a guide dog. It starts out life as a puppy - cute but undisciplined. A human trains the puppy to follow basic instructions, walk in a straight line and react to the dangers that exist in the modern world. But the learning doesn't stop there. Once the guide dog is given to its owner, it will have to constantly appraise unfamiliar situations and hazards, and react appropriately.

The ML algorithm is like the puppy. Well, except it's a computer program, of course. The first stage of supervised ML is the training phase. A small set of training data is fed into the system, and the algorithm creates a certain type of output from it. A human will then assess that output, tweak the algorithm and run the process again. Once the human is satisfied (which can often take a long time) the algorithm is fed with real-world data (the more the better). Although the algorithm has never seen this real-world data before, it can make choices based on what it has learned during the training phase and create a completely new output from it.

Seen from this angle, ML isn't actually that clever. It relies on humans to write the algorithm, and supply the output format and training data. But the technology has been hyped to dangerous levels, as this Guardian article explains. The real strength of ML is that it can make decisions based on vast amounts of data that would take a human a lifetime to digest. If you subscribe to the theory that a writer is just the sum of their influences, the idea is that you could feed loads and loads of existing works into an algorithm and have a new one pop out the other side. In practice, it's rather more difficult than that...

In 2016, director Oscar Sharp and AI researcher Ross Goodwin set out to make a short film written entirely by a computer. Called Sunspring, it was created by an ML algorithm called Benjamin. The training data set was a series of prompts from a sci-fi filmmaking contest. The input data set was hundreds of sci-fi movie screenplays. And the output was a movie script, which was then staged and acted by professional filmmakers. Here's the result:

Well, that was "special". Not so much a script in fact, more a collection of lines of dialogue and action cut-and-pasted together. My favourite quote is:
"But I'm the one who got on the rock with the other two, and left a child."

I also love the fact that the film features an actual Chekhov's Gun, duct-taped to the wall. It's absolutely hilarious watching the actors doing their best to emote with a screenplay that is borderline gibberish, and it makes you realise how much an actor's performance brings to a movie.

OK, not so impressive a performance from our AI screenwriter that time. In June of this year though, the team behind Sunspring tried again, with the twist that this time they gave full control to the AI. As well as loading up the AI with movie scripts, they gave it green-screen footage of the Sunspring actors and actual public-domain movies and music. This is Zone Out, the short film that emerged from the process:

This one is much more interesting, possibly due to how bizarre it is. The results are a lot like watching a David Lynch film (Eraserhead springs to mind) but with freaky face-swap technology mixed in. Zone Out is genuinely unnerving in places, though it derives a lot of its power from the mise en scène of the original movie footage used (particularly The Brain That Wouldn't Die). However, one thing that has remained constant between the two films is the quality of the script - it is woeful!

On the evidence of these films and other experiments, ML has a long way to go when it comes to writing fiction. Meanwhile though, AI has been gradually creeping into journalism. Obviously, an algorithm can't write an opinion piece yet, but they are very good at cranking out copy based around predictable subjects. For instance, content generation firm AI Insights has this case study about their work with Yahoo Sports, claiming that 70 million sports reports and match recaps have been created using their technology. You might expect such writing to be bland, but AI Insights have given their ML algorithm a distinctively sarcastic voice, which helps to mask the fact that the content has been generated by a computer.

As we all know, technology moves quickly, and it's hard to be sure how it might develop. But what are some likely next steps for machine writing? This Deadline article by Arvin Patel has some fascinating but grounded ideas about how AI might affect Hollywood. A lot of them aren't about replicating tasks we already do, but creating new forms of content, like TV series that are uniquely created for your own interests (this idea of content personalisation can also be seen in the Yahoo Sports article).

Could we one day have a novel that rewrites itself to suit the reader's likes and dislikes? I actually imagined this scenario way back in 2013 for a short story called Mindworm, which you can read for free on my website. Luckily, nothing like this has happened for real, as yet...

Mindworm illustration by Mei-Li Nieuwland

I think a much more likely scenario for machine writing is the creation of new works by dead authors. You can imagine a situation where all of Jane Austen's novels, letters and half-finished manuscripts are fed into an ML algorithm to create an entirely new book in her authentic voice. Or how about a "previously undiscovered" Shakespeare play? The publishing industry have been churning out this kind of thing for years using ghost writers, so the idea they might do it with algorithms isn't too far-fetched.

As for the technology supplanting us living fiction writers, I reckon we can breathe easy for now. This is because a writer isn't just the sum of their influences - we absorb the content and then apply our own unique perspective to it. That perspective is formed by a cocktail of experience, consciousness and emotion that is currently impossible to synthesise. Existing ML algorithms can only remix existing content, they can't create something wholly new. To do that will require a computer that's able to think entirely like a human, and that technology is as far off as it ever was.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday 12 October 2018

Tuning in techniques for your brain!

by Paula Harrison

I've heard other writers say that they could never work on more than one story at a time. However I bet they actually have side projects in the backs of their heads - things they want to develop when there's time.

I make my living writing multiple things for multiple people. I currently have two new series (neither of which has been announced yet). I also have another idea lurking in my head that I'd really love to start working on. I also have a family and all the chores and responsibilities that go with that. I'm always finding out that my kids' trainers are falling apart or I haven't paid for their lunches or that we've run out of milk. So focusing on one thing and giving it that intensive concentration that makes a great book is a challenge at times. But there are quick cheat ways to tune your brain into a story so that each time you sit down to write you actually write rather than staring at the screen and thinking about whether to book a new grocery delivery slot. So here they are:

Use key objects
This could be almost anything that helps to key your brain into your story. Ideally it will be something smallish that you can keep on your desk. I find this a particularly useful technique when I'm using a real world setting as my inspiration. It works because I can bring something back that's meaningful to me.
A few years back I wrote a story inspired by the dark peak area of the Peak District. I brought back one pebble from the rocky cliffs around Curbar Edge and kept it on my desk. It was helpful to be able to pick it up and handle it from time to time. Its shape and rough texture evoked that place for me.
Curbar Edge was the inspiration for the setting in Pale Peak Burning

Have a key image as your desktop background
Choosing a key image and keeping it as your desktop or laptop background will launch you into the right mood for your stories as soon as you boot up your computer. This doesn't have to be a picture that evokes your setting. It could be something that links to your main character or theme. Last year I wrote a book for readers aged 6+ and I kept a picture of an otter that I'd taken at Newquay Zoo as my desktop background. I like this one as it looks like he's waving at me!

Create a mood board
I have to confess that I've never created a mood board but I know some writers love them. The advantage of this technique must be that you're not restricted to one key image to shortcut your brain into story mode. You can put together all sorts of images matching different characters and themes that evoke the complexity of your fictional world. With sites like Tumblr around this has become easier and easier to do. Just make sure that you don't spend so much time putting together a mood board that you never get round to writing.

Use music
If you asked me which of these techniques is the most useful to me I'd pick music. There's something about music that reaches our emotions instantly and let's us springboard straight into the right frame of mind for writing fiction. I've also relied on this heavily during times where there were family or personal issues going on, as happens to everyone from time to time, but putting writing aside was not an option because I was writing under deadline. This is another blog post really, but if shutting out all other things in your brain is a challenge then I really recommend finding a song or piece of music that connects with your story in some way.

Write little notes to yourself
To work well, I'd suggest keeping the notes short. Maybe just a few key sentences about what the central conflict is in your character's life. These notes could be in a notebook but sometimes I pop them at the top of the chapter I'm working on. Sometimes, if I'm keen to crack on, I'll write something in capitals in my manuscript about the things I need to expand on. That way I can carry on writing but remember my thoughts about editing the chapter when I come back later.

Pin up key phrases for your characters or themes
This is a similar idea to the one above, but in this case keep it REALLY short. In the past I've stuck key thoughts on the wall above my computer. The only down side with this is that your family and friends tend to come along and read them out loud and then stare at you in a quizzical way as if you've completely lost the plot!

Hopefully some of these will be useful to you! I've been thinking about the theory of different learning styles recently (I was once a primary school teacher) and I wonder if what's useful will depend on whether you're a visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic learner. I don't know very much about the theory but I do know that I'm a visual learner and I tend to think visually, so I nearly always use the desktop background technique with my stories as it works so well for me. Good luck!

Paula Harrison is the million-selling author of The Rescue Princesses. She has also written two more young series and five novels for readers aged 9+.

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