When AI starts putting pen to paper

If you think about it, it’s not really printed books that are under attack from e-books and the digital space. If you think about it, electronic books, websites, blogs, new media, social media, trans-media, you name it, are not fundamentally different from print. Media scholars like to talk about secondary orality, the Gutenberg parenthesis, and other theoretical earworms, but actually, the great scandal is coming from elsewhere. It is coming from machine writing.

Until recently, computers used to play music exclusively composed by human artists. Humans have been using machines to compose their own music. The rules are changing. Machines are composing their own tracks, with minimal or no human supervision. Think of MorpheuS, AIVA, MuseNet or Google’s Magenta project.

In October 2018, the Portrait of Edmond de Belamy sold at Christie’s for nearly half a million dollars. The Portrait was the work of a machine at Obvious, the Paris AI art collective.

The future of AI is creative AI.

With music and art, writing is another obvious target for AI development and application. Small steps are being taken in moving from machine learning to machine writing. Deep learning neural networks turn huge datasets into machine insights that are now advanced enough to bridge the void between input and output, between learning and writing.

Google’s Smart Compose completes sentences based on a number of contextual factors, driven by experience (datasets) and maths (probabilities). The writing-assistant app Grammarly is hugely popular because it is so good at what it does and makes us sound more intelligent (you need a Premium account for a premium appearance of eloquence). In 2017, Ross Goodwin’s AI computer wrote a road novel, after having a go at screenplays and poetry.

OpenAI’s GPT-2 system can generate prose based on any human text. Talktotransformer.com offers a simulation environment based on a stripped-down version of the AI. The full version of GPT-2 has not been released out of concerns that it might be too dangerous, i.e. generating out-of-control fake news or disruptive market reports.

As a friend quipped last week, your next favourite novel might be written by AI – and the problem is that you might not even know it.

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